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Eugene Weekly : News : 6.19.08




Eugene’s Dream for Darfur

Local effort for international impact during Trials

Words and Photos by Desiree Aflleje

Kailyn Knight wears a green bracelet with the words “Not On Our Watch”
Lane County Darfur Coalition member Marti Berger
UO Students Jaime Symons and Kailyn Knight silkscreen T-shirts

On a mild spring afternoon, Marti Berger stood outside the old Federal Building downtown with a five-foot sign that read, “China, Oil, Darfur, Genocide” painted next to Olympic rings. “Don’t politicize the Olympics,” a woman yelled from a passing car. But for Berger, China’s human rights violations make it impossible to separate government affairs from the Beijing Games.

Berger and the other members of the Lane County Darfur Coalition see the national spotlight the Olympic Track and Field Trials bring to Eugene as a golden opportunity to have an impact on the crisis in Darfur, the western region of Sudan home to the first genocide of the 21st century. China stands as the greatest economic ally of the Sudanese government, a government participating in the mass murder of its own people, Berger says.

In Berger’s Eugene home, a vibrant hand-painted canvas covers the retired elementary school teacher’s living room floor, email updates pack her inbox, and a stack of signs pile up on her couch. As businesses prepare to capture dollars from the thousands expected to come to the city during the Trials, Berger hopes to appeal not to the visitors’ pocketbooks but to their consciences.

“This is a track community, but this is also a social justice community,” Berger said. “Surely there’s an overlap of people who care about social justice and are also enthusiasts for the Olympics. There’s ground for us to meet and join, and it doesn’t threaten the Olympics. It’s having a voice and taking an action when we have the opportunity to.”

The U.N. reports that more than two million people have been displaced from Darfur since 2003 when the fighting erupted among the Sudanese government’s military, government-funded Janjaweed militias and rebel groups. With death toll estimates between 200,000 and 400,000, the urgency of the situation in Darfur remains clear. But how to affect real change in a complex crisis across an ocean has been a stubborn question the Lane County Darfur Coalition has faced since it formed three years ago.

The coalition was born out of a meeting at a local synagogue attended by more than 100 people, and since that time the coalition has dwindled to a core group of about a dozen members. “We had the wind go out of our sails,” Berger said when she was discouraged following a downtown torch rally that was met with only mild public enthusiasm. 

But in the months leading up to the trials, the coalition has become reenergized. Members have been on national conference calls, designing brochures, sending out press releases and securing space at the Trials.

“[The Trials have] really given us a point of focus,” Berger said. “It will be visible to the nation; it will be visible to the world.” 

The group’s message is “China, please.” With the 2008 Olympic slogan, “One World, One Dream,” the coalition is asking China to use its economic and political leverage to pressure the Sudanese government to end the genocide in Darfur.

Several UO students joined the coalition in recent months and brought new ideas and a new demographic to the table. Between classes, Jaime Symons and Kailyn Knight have been organizing educational movie nights, writing proposals and passing out brochures.

National organizations have lent some support and funding to the coalition in preparation for the Trials. In April, Knight and Symons flew to San Francisco for the U.S. leg of the Olympic torch relay. Symons said the camaraderie was inspirational as she stood with thousands of others to ask China to clean up its human rights violations.

The coalition plans to hold events in the UO’s Erb Memorial Union Amphitheater from Saturday, June 28 to Monday, June 30. Stop Genocide Now, an organization dedicated to protecting threatened populations, will bring Camp Darfur to Eugene. Camp Darfur will display tents that house information, images and stories about five genocides, including Darfur. Along with live music, the coalition plans to have hands-on activities, such as making school kit donations. In addition, the local group has teamed up with community members to hold a benefit for Darfur at Jo Federigo’s Restaurant and Jazz Club on Monday, June 30. 

The coalition wants to make the issue visible to the media by getting Darfur signs in business and home windows across town and passing out symbolic armbands to people on campus. The group is working with Tents of Hope, a national project that creates symbolic tents to spark community education about Darfur. 

Even with the opportunity of national media coverage, Berger knows it’s impossible to forecast what impact local activism will have on the distant five-year-long conflict. 

“There’s some fear,” she said, running her fingers across her green ‘Save Darfur’ bracelet. “But I am hopeful.”

Berger takes at least one action for Darfur each day: a call to U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio, a letter to the editor, a conversation with a stranger.

 “Sometimes people think that they can only make a difference through donating money, but as citizens there are certain actions we can take through the government and it’s not always reaching into our pocketbooks,” Berger said. “This is a cause where you just have to take a breath and just keep taking action.”     

To contact the Lane County Darfur Coalition, call Jaime Symons at 707-478-9438





Darfur, Tied to China

Economic

China is Sudan’s biggest trading partner. According to PBS, China buys around two-thirds of Sudan’s largest export, oil. 

Political

China has repeatedly used its seat on the U.N. Security Council to block U.N. intervention in Darfur. In 2006, China hindered international support in Darfur by abstaining from U.N. Security Council Resolution 1706.

Military

China serves as a major arms supplier to the Sudanese government. Some of these weapons have been used in the Darfur genocide.