Mohamed Yahya doesn't know if his parents are still alive. While he was attending school in Cairo, his village in Darfur --- Koka --- was repeatedly attacked by the Arab militia operating in Sudan.
"I don't know what happened to them," Yahya said in a recent telephone interview. "I don't know the fate of most of my family. There are no telephones. If the Arabs see anyone with a cell phone, the phone is confiscated --- and they are killed. I'm sure that Koka is destroyed. We know they destroyed 50 nearby villages, took what they wanted, killed the men, raped the women. Sometimes they burned the huts with people still in them. Only a few of us escaped this nightmare."
Yahya is the founder of the Damanga Coalition for Freedom and Democracy, the first organization to bring international attention to the genocide in Darfur. And he will be the guest speaker at the Rochester Interfaith Darfur Rally, planned for 7 p.m. on Thursday, April 27, at Temple B'rith Kodesh, 2131 Elmwood Avenue. Nearly 20 organizations are sponsoring the event, including the Jewish Community Federation, The Rochester Catholic Diocese, American Baptist Churches of the Rochester-Genesee Region, and the Greater Rochester Community of Churches.
Yahya's personal account of the situation in Darfur mirrors those of other survivors, aid workers, and journalists. In a November New York Times column, Nicholas Kristof wrote about Sudan's success at turning mass gang rape into highly effective weaponry.
"This policy is shrewd as well as brutal, for the exceptional stigma of rape here often silences victims even as it terrorizes the entire population and forces people to flee," Kristof wrote.
The crisis in Darfur was brewing through much of the 90's, but in early 2003 it escalated into an armed conflict as Sudanese government forces and ethnic militia, the Janjaweed, clashed with two rebel groups --- the Sudanese Liberation Army and the Justice and Equality Movement. The Sudanese government tried to dismiss the attacks on civilians as nothing more than clashes between rival tribes.
By 2005, the Janjaweed's attacks on rural villages in southern Sudan had left thousands dead, according to reports by Human Rights Watch. With drinking water poisoned, crops burned, homes looted, and livestock taken or killed, more than 2 million Darfurians are living in refugee camps. Another 250,000 have crossed the border into neighboring Chad, drawing that country into the conflict.
"When it started, first we were not allowed to speak our own language," said Yahya. "We would be stopped and asked for our ID, even though this is our land. We are in our country. And we were denied work. We could join the army, but that was it. Even if we were educated, it didn't matter. We couldn't get jobs in our fields, and the army wouldn't take us as anything more than soldiers. You could not be an officer. And the slightest mistake, the smallest resistance and you would be taken and beaten or killed. The women in your family would be raped and discarded. It was horror. It was unbelievable. We have been a peaceful people. The people in these villages have been farmers. Most have been living off their land for ages."
The Darfurians, said Yahya, describe the Janjaweed raids as kasha, their word for "sweep." "We could see what was happening to us. They want to wipe out our people. We are black people, and they are Arab. Many of us are Christian Africans and Muslims, and they are Muslim. They call it a holy war, but this is not holy. This is not real Islam. The real reason for all of this: they want our land. And they do not want us, just our land."
Slavery has also returned to Africa, said Yahya. Thousands of young girls have been turned into servants for the militia. They cook the soldiers' meals and succumb to rape to stay alive. And they are often traded like cows.
In 2004, the African Union tried to mediate and enforce a ceasefire. Despite receiving funding and equipment from the European Union, the United Kingdom, and the United States to support an army of 7,000 soldiers, the ceasefire did not hold. It briefly slowed the attacks, said Yahya, but it failed to halt the conflict because the African Union could barely patrol the camps. It couldn't patrol the rural areas of southern Sudan, where most of the atrocities occur. And when the United Nations tried to send a peacekeeping force to the region to support the African Union, the Sudanese government blocked the plan. The situation, said Yahya, has steadily deteriorated.
"The Janjaweed and Chadian rebels are attacking the camps on both sides of the border," he said. "These camps are largely women and children and aid workers. People are dying because there is not enough food and water and medicine. But it is too dangerous to venture far from the camps. It is shameful. The world is watching this happen. If something is not done soon, the Darfurians will be no more. We will be extinct."
"What is needed is a larger involvement of the United States," he said. "What is needed is a larger force on the ground. The United Nations has done nothing, because Russia and China are supporting the Sudanese government. They don't want to impose sanctions because they want access to oil."
The UN Security Council has been divided on what to do about Darfur and has not imposed sanctions against the Sudanese government. The Arab League has also been silent because Sudan is a member of the League. And even though the US and the UK have described the government's policy as genocide, the International Criminal Court's investigations have been hampered by lack of access to the region.
"They do not want anyone to see what is happening there," said Yahya. "And they are purposely deceiving the world about the numbers of displaced populations. They are using suppressed figures, saying there were only 5 million people living there with 2 million as refugees and 3 million still there. But that's government propaganda. The population was much larger than that. Some people have estimated it closer to 7 million. The suppressed figure allows them to conduct their killings without accountability. They're going to say, nothing happened because those missing people weren't here to start with."
"Our failure in Darfur is utterly bipartisan," Nicholas Kristof wrote last month. Zogby International polls, he said, show that the American public is ahead of Washington policy makers, favoring an intervention in Darfur to stop the slaughter.
Yahya travels the country to speak at rallies like the one next week in Rochester because, he said, "time is running out." Darfur's problems have been complicated by the absence of a large Darfurian community in the US that can call members of Congress, as well as an administration that is bogged down in the Iraq War.
Rochester's rally will coincide with an April 30 national rally in Washington, DC, says Isobel Goldman, an organizer for the event with the Jewish Community Federation. And rally sponsors are also participating in the Million Voices for Darfur postcard campaign. Postcards protesting the lack of US action regarding the genocide in Darfur are available at the Jewish Community Federation, 441 East Avenue. Cards will be collected until the rally on the 27th and will be delivered to the White House along with cards from throughout the country.
The postcards are also available online: www.savedarfur.org.
Like the Federation, the Rochester Catholic Diocese is intensely focused on Darfur, along with other problems facing the African continent, including AIDS. "We are educating ourselves on these issues," says Sister Janet Korn of the Sisters of Mercy.
"We feel we have an obligation to join efforts that support the church's view on these matters, on the respect for life," says Korn, who is also helping organize the rally. "We have sent word out to all of the different parishes to come and pick up the postcards. This is a humanitarian crisis, and our help is urgently needed."
Rochester Interfaith Darfur Rally: 7 p.m. Thursday, April 27, TempleB'rith Kodesh, 2131 Elmwood Avenue. The speaker: Mohamed Yahya.