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Darfur the Grace of God

Taking the rhetoric of freedom seriously

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"What do we want?"

Someone has to ask this question at every political demonstration, and it's up to other demonstrators to provide a simple, one-word answer. It wasn't so easy, however, for the 75 demonstrators marching up Murray Avenue on April 3.

"Peace!" said some. "Action!" said others.

There are no easy answers in Darfur, a war-ravaged region of Western Sudan, and the proof is that many of those marching were wary of the Bush administration and U.S. power. Some had been at a march a week before protesting the war in Iraq.

It's hard to know anything about Darfur -- even how many people have died there since February 2003, when the Sudanese army and government-backed militias began a campaign of murder, pillaging and rape. Rough estimates put the death toll at 300,000, all part of a genocidal effort to kill non-Arabs or drive them out of the region.

The protesters weren't waiting for a precise body count. At the front of the march, members of Students Taking Action Now: Darfur (STAND) were chanting "US must act! UN must act! President Bush must act!"

STAND has chapters at Allderdice and Schenley high schools, formed by students who wrestled with the Sudanese issue during class work at their Hebrew school: the School for Advanced Jewish Studies at Squirrel Hill's Congregation Beth Shalom. Some of those students marched right past Allderdice that day, and they're active inside school too: Members like Hannah Malvin and Rachel Beck are talking about the conflict in social studies classes.

And like any successful movement these days, saving Darfur comes with its own fashion accessory: a Lance Armstrong-style bracelet bearing the legend "Not on My Watch." (President Bush supposedly scrawled that across a report on Sudan. That ranks among his most vigorous actions on the matter so far.) Malvin and Beck have sold more than 400 bracelets already.

As Marla Schwartz, another Allderdice junior and Jewish Studies student, puts it, "It's a particular issue for us because of the Holocaust. We don't want to just stand aside and see it happen."

Most Americans have been content to do just that. While the April 3 march was boisterous and well received -- marchers flashed signs at drivers, neighbors waving from storefronts and Giant Eagle employees staring from the window -- media coverage was sparse. Other than a KDKA crew who briefly filmed the scene, the only reporter was a somewhat winded City Paper scribe.

"This is the kind of image which, unfortunately, the media never portrays," University of Pennsylvania professor Ali Ali-Dinar told demonstrators at a post-march forum. The reporting we do get about hotspots like Sudan tends to be a kind of ambulance-chasing, in which Americans are told rival ethnic groups are settling old scores.

But in Darfur as elsewhere many of the warring groups once lived in relative harmony. Trouble starts, Ali-Dinar says, when politicians exploit old racial tensions for their own gain. "For some governments, war is good," Ali-Dinar told the group. "Waging a war, being in a state of war, is something good."

If you're like me, when you hear such words, George Bush's name comes to mind as quickly as George Orwell's. So it can be disconcerting to see young people calling for more troops to be sent abroad. Malvin says she'd want such a military presence to be "not like the U.S. invading," but rather a Yugoslavia-style intervention -- a genuine multinational effort. But "We don't really care who it is," she says, just so the violence stops.

There was little sentiment in favor of Bush among the marchers, but one gets the sense they've heard him say that "ending tyranny" is the "work of generations" and that "[t]he difficulty of the task is no excuse for avoiding it." They've heard him pledge that "America's influence is considerable, and we will use it confidently in freedom's cause."

I'm old enough to have seen numerous U.S. interventions go wrong, often because we intervened on the wrong side. So it's hard to get over a knee-jerk distrust of our own professed good intentions. Many of Sunday's marchers, though, were in middle school on 9/11. When something like that happens in junior high, the world doesn't merely change: It begins. The young people marching may not like Bush. But they have listened to his clarion calls to conscience -- closely enough to take them seriously.

In Darfur, though, the toughest question of all is: Has Bush?

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