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Painful memories spur Sudanese to rally in D.C.

Sudanese rally on the National Mall in W
Sudanese rally on the National Mall in Washington on Sunday as thousands of people called on the U.S. administration to help end genocide in the western Sudan region of Darfur.Saul McSween / AFP - Getty Image
/ Source: NBC News

When you hear his story, it’s not difficult understand why Abhas Hamdoun and five other Sudanese men drove ten hours through the night from Indiana to Washington, D.C.

Three months ago Hamdoun received a letter saying his father had been killed in a fire-bombing by the Janjaweed militia group, which is accused of marauding across the Darfur region of western Sudan destroying villages and raping and murdering any civilians who come across their path.

It’s yet another tragedy for the towering, soft-spoken man, one of several hundred Sudanese who packed the National Mall on Sunday as part of a star-studded rally to urge U.S. intervention in Darfur region.

Six months before hearing the news about his father, Hamdoun lost his younger brothers and several cousins in another Janjaweed attack.

“Half of my family is gone,” he said. “It’s a small place called Koutum. It’s totally destroyed.”

Like many of the small group of Sudanese at Sunday’s rally on the National Mall, Hamdoun spoke matter-of-factly about the death of his family and the destruction of his village. He said he was most interested in the future of his homeland and what steps can be taken to save it from further bloodshed. 

“I want to save Darfur,” he said emphatically. “I want the world to know what is happening there.”

Long history of conflict
The years of fighting between ethnic groups in Darfur have left at least 180,000 people dead and about 2 million homeless. The crisis has spilled into neighboring Chad as an estimated 3 million refugees have poured across the border seeking shelter and safety.

The plight of Darfur’s refugees threatens to get worse — the United Nations World Food Program said Friday that it will be forced to cut food rations in half, citing a lack of funds.

And as marchers rallied on the Mall on Sunday, rebels in Sudan’s Darfur region rejected a peace proposal that would end the conflict (though mediators extended the talks for two days under pressure from the United States).

The rally on the Mall attracted high-profile speakers, such as actor George Clooney (who just returned from Darfur); U.S. Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill.; House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.; Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel; speedskating champion Joey Cheek (who gave his Olympics bonus money to the cause); and Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, Washington's Catholic archbishop.

Attempting to organize
For most Sudanese at the rally, focusing on the history or the roots of the conflict was seen as counterproductive to ending the killing in Darfur.

Many are split on the reasons for the genocide. Ahmed Al-Dabi, who came to the U.S. as a graduate student in the early ’80s, says the turmoil is based on oil and a corrupt government. 

The Sudanese who accompanied Hamdoun from Indiana emphasize the racial and cultural motivations for the killings and the mass rapes.  Sudan is split between Muslims, Christians and many who follow native religions as well as between Arabs and blacks.

“Sudan’s a big mess. It’s been that way since since we got independence from the British fifty years ago,” said Dosa Bushara, an attendee at the rally.

Bushara said that his family heads the Zaghawa tribe in Darfur, which had about 150,000 to 200,000 members in both Sudan and Chad, and that his grandfather, one of the co-heads of the Zaghawa and chief of a village of several thousand people, was recently killed by the Janjaweed because of his role as a tribal leader. And the village? That, too, is gone, he said.

Bushara, one of organizers of New York United for Darfur — an organization with a mostly Sudanese membership that has attempted to organize its community to speak out and call for global intervention in Darfur — helped bus 200 to the rally. They have also held demonstrations in front of the United Nations. 

But getting the Sudanese in the U.S. to get involved has not been easy.

“There are a lot of disagreements among the Sudanese,” Bushara said, “because of the civil war and political issues.”

Another obstacle for the community has been their status as refugees, exiles and immigrants. 

“I fled Sudan in 1989 as a refugee when this government took power,” explained Mahdi Elkhalifa, who said the rally was the first time he has done more than talk about the conflict with family and neighbors. “We do a lot, but we do it individually. We send money home, and we are attempting to take care of ourselves here too.”

A universal rally for support
Sunday’s rally, which organizers said was attended by about 75,000, demonstrated that that the conflict has captured the attention of more than just Sudanese immigrants in the U.S.  (There were also smaller rallies at cities across the U.S.)

For example, Zeinabu Sall, a Senegalese immigrant who was living in a village with no running water just five years ago, said that she could easily see herself in the shoes of a young woman in Darfur.

“We are all here because we understand that this is not a Sudanese issue; this is not just an African issue; it’s a global issue,” she said.

For Hamdoun, the presence of thousands of demonstrators at the mall gave him hope that the rally would lead to some form of intervention.

“All of these people here understand that this is a human problem. I hope now that people will get educated and start to call on their governments to take action,” he said.