Obies Camp Out for Peace in Darfur
“So, do you think camping out is going to end the genocide?”
Shortly after 9 p.m. on Thursday night, this was one of the questions that Oberlin students coordinating the Campout for Darfur were fielding from passersby. Amidst an array of tents, blankets, pizza and people spread out on the grass of Wilder Bowl, the goal of the event might not have been obvious.
But to the organizers of Students Advocating for Peace in Sudan — and the students who saw the campsite, heard about the campaign, and decided to stay the night — the purpose of their presence was perfectly clear.
“This is one facet of a multifaceted student movement,” said College sophomore Penina Eilberg-Schwartz, one of the leaders of SAPS. “We’re here tonight to raise awareness on campus about this issue and to get people to realize what a difference our campus alone could make.”
Eilberg-Schwartz stressed the group’s recognition that a demonstration by college students would not be enough to resolve an international crisis. However, she also expressed her feeling that students fail to realize the power they can have.
“Gosh — there are 2800 students on this campus. What if we were all calling Congress every week, calling Bush every week, asking them to send troops there?” she asked. “What if we were all telling our friends and communities at home so they would know about this and want to do something about it? There’s so much we can do if we work together.”
The nationwide Darfur advocacy campaign, which encompasses a variety of student and adult organizations, uses events to raise awareness as part of its three-tiered strategy to create peace in Sudan. The other tactics are political advocacy — communication with legislators to encourage Congressional support for peace in Sudan — and fundraising for humanitarian relief.
The campout hosted by SAPS took place during a nationwide action week of student fasts and campouts for Darfur. On Friday, April 21, SAPS will host a “Jam for Sudan” at the ’Sco to raise money for Doctors Without Borders, one of the humanitarian groups that works in Sudan. Active students will also be traveling to Washington, D.C. at the end of the month to participate in a national rally, protest and lobbying weekend.
Apart from the overnight campout itself, the evening on Wilder Bowl also included a screening of The Lost Boys of Sudan, a 2003 documentary about a group of teenagers’ journey from Africa to the United States. About 90 students sat outside and watched the projected film on the walls of Mudd. Tents were donated by the Outing Club and students brought their own sleeping bags and blankets.
SAPS was founded only this year by a group of first-years connected by loose friendships and a common concern about the genocide.
“For me, it was just a logical continuation of what I worked on with Amnesty International in high school,” said first-year Matt Rumizen, one of the founding members.
“I was really surprised that we didn’t already have a group for [Darfur] here,” said Joel Solow, another first-year leader in the group. Solow himself was attracted to the issue because of his sense that it’s “one of the few instances in which U.S. power could really be put to good use.”
The issue is complicated and expansive, and the leaders of SAPS have done their best to stay well-informed about the situation in Darfur and its history. Interviewed before the campout, Eilberg-Schwartz and fellow leader first-year Kehan DeSousa gave a concise summary of the genocide’s history.
As they told it, the story begins with a 20-year North vs. South civil war in Sudan. A ceasefire was recently established, but many civilians and analysts fear violence could break out again.
Darfur is a region in the west of Sudan where a rebel group originally attacked a government base out of frustration with government power dynamics. The government retaliated by sending in the so-called “janjaweed” militia to kill as many people as possible, contaminate the water, burn the fields and otherwise wreak havoc.
The Sudanese government maintains that their activity in Darfur is aimed at weeding out the rebels, but “the problem with these things is the inevitable civilian deaths,” Eilberg-Schwartz said.
“They’re destroying their livelihood,” added DeSousa. “They’re burning their fields.”
Eilberg-Schwartz referenced the New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, whose writings on Darfur include “the most awful stories” of families destroyed and children murdered.
In many cases, it is only the relief organizations that make survival possible through refugee camps.
“If it weren’t for the relief organizations, it would just be random people spread throughout the desert trying to survive,” DeSousa said.
Both Eilberg-Schwartz and DeSousa acknowledged the astounding complexity of the issue they are working on.
“This is one of the least cut and dry issues that I’ve heard of,” DeSousa said.
“In order to be an activist...you have to simplify it somewhat,” Eilberg-Schwartz added. “But essentially, it’s about civilians being killed...Even being in a refugee camp is essentially slow murder.”
The national Darfur movement’s current political advocacy campaign is aimed at pressuring Congress to urge President George W. Bush to deploy National Treaty Organization troops to Darfur.
“It’s pretty much agreed that the [United Nations] is going to go in at some point, but the UN takes a long time. NATO could be deployed in five days,” said Eilberg-Schwartz.
Legislation to send in troops has already passed in the House of Representatives, and activists believe that if enough people call in to pressure Congress, legislation could be passed by Congress.
“Generally, everyone agrees a significant force is needed,” said Eilberg-Schwartz. “If there are no troops there, more civilians will die.”
However, for this week, “Our events are just to raise awareness,” Eilberg-Schwartz explained. “If we could see it, everyone would be working on it; it’s just that it’s so far away.
“I think there’s also an aspect of guilt, that we’re here,
and we have what we have, and they’re over there...People feel like
there’s nothing they can do — but there’s so much we can
do,” she said.