Refugees from Darfur rally for end to violence in Sudan


PORTLAND (AP) – Mansour Ahmed has the trappings of the good life in the United States: a happy family, an apartment, a computer, a car. Most of all, his family has safety and freedom. He can’t say the same for the family he left behind.

His parents and four of his siblings escaped Sudan’s embattled Darfur region but remain in the country. Ahmed, the only one to make it to America, lives in fear that they, and a brother still in Darfur, could be killed any day.

“I’m safe, but they’re not safe,” said Ahmed, 39, sitting next to his computer in a tidy apartment a few blocks from Portland Harbor, far from the death and violence in his former home. “They are killing people every day, every day.”

On Saturday, Ahmed and about 15 other refugees from Sudan’s Darfur region along with community supporters will be boarding a bus for the 12-hour trip to Washington, D.C., to participate in Darfur rally on the National Mall.

Sunday’s rally coincides with a U.N. deadline for Darfur’s warring parties to reach a peace deal to end the three-year conflict.

The African Union’s Peace and Security Council has agreed to hand over peacekeeping in Darfur to the United Nations after its current mandate ends on Sept. 30. But final approval by the African Union has not been granted.

Last week, a gathering of Darfur refugees at the apartment of El’Hadi Adam in Portland suggested Sept. 30 isn’t soon enough.

“Our people are suffering now,” said Hassan Kober, 43, of Portland, who said about 25 family members and friends have died in Darfur.

The Darfur conflict began in 2003, when rebels of ethnic Africans took up arms against the Arab-dominated government. The government responded with a brutal suppression and Arab militias, known as the Janjaweed, attacked villages.

At least 180,000 people have died – some estimates are much higher – from hunger, disease and violence. Two million are homeless.

Even before the Darfur crisis there was bloodshed in Sudan, and many who fled the fighting ended up in Portland. There are currently more than 700 Sudanese refugees in Portland, and about 100 of them are from the Darfur region.

The Darfur refugees have lost family members and friends to violence, and many feel that the violence is escalating. Villages have been wiped out, and outsiders are moving in, they say. Many of them feel the Arab-led government is trying to remove ethnic Africans to take over a land rich with natural resources, including oil and uranium.

Osama bin Laden, who was ejected from Sudan in 1996, has urged followers to go Sudan to fight the proposed U.N. peacekeeping force. Some suspect bin Laden’s influence, and fear that terrorists already have taken root.

Adding to the uncertainty are threats by the government of neighboring Chad to forcibly return refugees to Darfur.

The Darfur rally is bringing together an unusual coalition, including Jewish groups fighting against genocide and Muslim refugees from Darfur. One of the co-sponsors of the Washington event is the American Jewish World Service.

The Portland delegation’s trip to Washington was organized by Adam Zuckerman, a student at Deering High School who’s active in his synagogue. He obtained $1,000 in grants to assure that anyone can attend, regardless of means.

Other Mainers headed to the rally include representatives of Peace Action Maine and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Zuckerman said it’s important for people to make their voices heard because silence only helps the oppressors. “If we’re not saying anything, then we’re telling the Sudanese government that we don’t care,” Zuckerman said.

For now, U.N. officials are blaming Khartoum’s refusal to allow a U.N. mission to assess the situation for possible delays in planning for a possible U.N. takeover.

Sudan’s government favors maintaining the 7,000-strong African Union force instead of allowing U.N. peacekeepers into the country.

Ahmed, who’s in daily contact with his family, most of which now lives in Sudan’s capital of Khartoum, expressed frustration with the pace of negotiations. He said Sudan’s government is not interested in a peaceful resolution.

Only international intervention – including U.S. troops – will end the genocide, Ahmed said.

“If the international communities go (to Sudan), then maybe Darfur will rise again,” Ahmed said. “If not, no more Darfur.”

El’Hadi Adam agreed that international intervention is needed to spare further suffering among the people of Darfur. “This genocide is still going on,” Adam said. “They won’t stop unless they send U.S. troops.”

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AP-ES-04-28-06 1105EDT