Activists Host Darfur Observance Day in L.A.

As violence continues in the Darfur region of Sudan, black activists in Los Angeles hosted a Darfur Observance Day. Dr. John J. Hunter, senior minister of the First A.M.E. Church in Los Angeles, and Mohamed Yahya, who grew up in Sudan and lost much of his family to the fighting in Darfur, talk to Farai Chideya about efforts to raise awareness of the ongoing conflict.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

And finally our last headline, the U.N. announced yesterday that the regional government of Southern Sudan is going to try to mediate between rebel groups in Darfur. The move could start a peace process that has been lagging. Since fighting began in Darfur in 2003, between 200,000 and 400,000 people have died. More than two million have been displaced.

The Sudanese government hasn't exactly rushed to the bargaining table to forge a new peace, neither have Darfur's many rebel groups. And the U.S. hasn't intervened directly on the ground. It has pushed for comprehensive sanctions and pumped millions of dollars of aid into Darfur. In 2006, the U.S. Agency for International Development provided an estimated $376 million to the region, mostly for food.

Of that $376 million, only $1.4 million went to peace building. Now, this coming Sunday in Los Angeles, several groups are hosting a high-profile Darfur Observance Day. Pastor John J. Hunter is one of the date's organizers and senior minister of the First African Methodist Episcopal Church based in L.A. Thank you so much for coming on.

Dr. JOHN J. HUNTER (Senior Minister, African Methodist Episcopal Church): Thank you for having me. Good day.

CHIDEYA: And Mohamed Yahya grew up in Sudan and lost much of his family to the fighting in Darfur. He is founder and executive director of Damanga Coalition for Freedom and Democracy. Welcome.

Mr. MOHAMED YAHYA (Founder, Damanga Coalition for Freedom and Democracy): Thank you so much for having me.

CHIDEYA: Well, let me actually start with you, Mr. Yahya. I understand you must be still devastated by what happened to your family. Can you just very briefly tell me a little bit about what happened to members of your family?

Mr. YAHYA: Unfortunately, my family members were killed after the first attack in 1993. It was not in 2003, as most of the people know, but that has started since 1993, when the government of Sudan - the Arab-dominated government and their allies, militia, which is so-called Janjaweed Arab militias - they attacked the whole area of the western Darfur state and torched, burnt to ashes over 50 villages in one day. And on that day my village was burned and 21 of my family members killed, two of my sisters raped, and two of my grandparents burned alive, and three of my brothers killed. And the rest of my family, who I don't know where are they to date. The last words I received from my parents that they are alive and they are able to escape. But they don't know where to go and we don't know anything about them.

CHIDEYA: I'm so sorry. Pastor John, hearing this, it must reinforce the urgency of what you're trying to do.

Dr. HUNTER: Absolutely. We who are so blessed have to respond in every way that we can, not just by informing but by being a part of the solution. So we're trying to raise $100,000 this Sunday afternoon at 4:00 at First AME Church, along with the Jewish World Watch, along with other Jewish organizations and the city of Los Angeles where our mayor, Antonio Villaraigosa, will be the keynote speaker. He has led Los Angeles in an effort to divest. We're hoping other states and other entities doing business with the Sudanese government will do likewise.

The needs are so many, but we're trying to save life. And the world learned from Rwanda, and hopefully that will never happen again, but it's rising to the proportions of a Rwanda-type of genocide. So we as human beings all over the world, and we particularly here in Los Angeles, are responding to this need and are glad to do it.

CHIDEYA: It strikes me that there have been times when folks in the U.S. have mobilized for Africa. I think of all of the divestment that happened around South Africa. Is there a growing movement, you think, nationally to really make this a push that comes from both within the black community and interfaith communities and really step up on this?

Dr. HUNTER: I think there is. I don't it has reached anywhere close to the proportions of South Africa. The apartheid government over a long period of time and the atrocities being documented over a long period of time caused many around the world to call for divestment in South Africa, the imprisonment of Nelson Mandela, et cetera.

However, I think from the publicity that followed Rwanda, the movie "Hotel Rwanda," we see what happens when the world does not respond. We are hoping that the Bush administration will become more proactive, will avail more resources, NATO will become more active, that more resources will go to helping to bring aid.

We realize it's complex, we realize it's difficult for humanitarian organizations sometimes to dispense the assistance that they can. Nonetheless, when we're spending billions upon a war in Iraq and we're giving basically, you know, a very small amount to address this need, we're calling upon our national leaders as well as the consciousness of all people to participate and to give and to become aware and to bring the kind of pressure internationally as well as nationally to this genocide.

CHIDEYA: Mr. Yahya, I want again thank you for sharing your personal story. Let's move to what you think the solutions are. What would you, as someone who has survived the crisis there, want to see happen either on a governmental level, on a non-profit level?

Mr. YAHYA: On governmental - (unintelligible) we are expecting to do more, because the NGOs and the public and the civilians and students and all those individuals, they have done so much for Darfur and are still doing their best. They're crying out, they're speaking out, and they're asking their government to increase and to use their leverage to stop this genocide.

And I believe that it is the moral responsibility for the United Nations in the first place and the United States of America as a member also of the United Nations. And almost the United States of America has the capability and logistics, and they're taking wonderful initiatives to free the nations around the world as they are doing their part in Iraq. And they have liberated Kuwait from Iraq in 1991 in only a couple of weeks.

Also just recently, four months ago, they are able by their initiative they sent peacekeepers to Lebanon when the war has erupted between Hezbollah and Israel. And they led it and they stop it, and there's no genocide there. But unfortunately, they failed to stop the genocide in Darfur, which is the only genocide in the 21st century, and it is the responsibility for the international community to work together.

And I ask - the needs should be taken by the United States of America to lead the United Nations, because the United Nations will not do anything - only condemning, only talking and making the same statements since this war began in Darfur. And it's very unfortunate that all the genocide taken place, as my friend said - pastor said right now with Rwanda. But also before that we felt a holocaust when over six million people burned alive. And also we've felt Cambodia. We've felt so many other places.

But right now it is the 21st century and I believe the international community, they have that capability, they have the equipment and they have the logistics and they are able to stop it. But there are still ignoring it and they're only talking, and the talks will never solve any problems.

CHIDEYA: Mr. Yahya?

Mr. YAHYA: Yes?

CHIDEYA: Let me just bring in Pastor John briefly. We only have about a minute left, unfortunately, and I feel like we could talk about this a lot longer. But when you hear Mr. Yahya talk, what level of importance does this have I want to just ask specifically, you think, for the black community in terms of justice? In South Africa, you had a racist government. This is not a racial conflict; it's about religious dimensions and ethnic dimensions. Do you think black Americans will mobilize around this?

Dr. HUNTER: I find that African-Americans are mobilizing more and more as we see the images, as we learn more about the atrocities that are taking place, as the numbers are coming to us with almost a half a million being killed and 3.5 displaced - 3.5 million being displaced. I believe that African-Americans, as well as others, are coming to realize that we must step in. It is our moral obligations and it is our privilege to do so.

CHIDEYA: Well, I want to thank both of you. Pastor John and Mohamed Yahya, thank you both so much.

Dr. HUNTER: Thank you.

Mr. YAHYA: Thank you for having us. I greatly appreciate it.

CHIDEYA: Pastor Dr. John J. Hunter is senior minister of the First AME Church in Los Angeles. He joined me at NPR West. And Mohamed Yahya is founder and executive director of Damanga Coalition for Freedom and Democracy. They helped organize this Sunday's Darfur Observance Day in Los Angeles.

And just ahead: we brave this week's entertainment news with Allison Samuels and a new documentary on the life and death of Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes.

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