"It is genocide," Mohammad Yayah said. A Darfur refugee who lost 21 family members to the killing there, Yayah was making his third speech of the day in Raleigh, and he was tired. Where earlier he'd declared the word often, with barely controlled fury, now it came out—"genocide"—almost in anguish.
"What are you waiting for?" he asked. "It is not hopeless. I have never lost hope in almost 15 years."
The founder of Damanga, one of the leading Darfur advocacy groups, Yayah had addressed larger groups in a church and a synagogue earlier in the day. Here, his audience was a smaller group of about 30 gathered in a private home. But he wasn't just talking to them. He was also talking to America. "This is a great country," he said. "Your voice is powerful. You can do something."
"At least," he added, "pray for us."
Flo Singer, founder and chief organizer of a new group called the Interfaith Coalition to Save Darfur, intends to do that and much more if she can. In the wake of Yayah's visit a couple of weeks ago, her plans include showing films, hosting speakers, raising funds, joining in a national advocacy program called "Tents of Hope," and organizing the Raleigh leg of a planned "Torch Relay" in December meant to pressure the Chinese government—the main impediment to action on Darfur at the United Nations—in the run-up to the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing.
"That's why we brought Mohammad here, so we don't feel helpless," she told the group. "Now let's get up off our you-know-whats and get going."
Singer is a former middle school teacher, a longtime activist with women's groups, a cancer survivor and, in January, a first-time marathon runner. She's also a Jew. "Well," she laughs, "more of a Jewish Buddhist these days."
All of which helps explain why, when she saw a TV report about Darfur a few months ago, she couldn't turn away. It said thousands were dying every month in the region in the western part of Sudan, and in refugee camps in neighboring Chad. It said most of the dying were children. It said one of the international committees helping in Darfur also helped with Jewish refugees from the Holocaust in World War II. A doctor said that, like most Germans then, people today know about Darfur, or they should, but they choose not to know.
"That was like a bullet hitting me right between the eyes," Singer says. "Now I know, and if I sit by and do nothing while evil is going on—not doing something is another evil."
Comparisons to the Holocaust are a powerful spur to Jews, who vowed—and heard the world vow—"Never again," only to learn that Cambodia, in the '70s, was a genocide, and Rwanda in the '90s was a genocide, Singer says. What the Sudanese government has done, and continues to do, in Darfur, is a genocide also, officially declared in this country by then-Secretary of State Colin Powell: The Arab government, using militia forces called janjaweed, is attempting to wipe out the black population of Darfur, even though most of the blacks are, like the government leaders, Muslims.
The death toll since 1993, when Yayah's family was attacked and their village destroyed, is estimated at 400,000 people. Another 2 million live in refugee camps, where they are far from safe—the janjaweed are there, too. The Chinese abet the slaughter, in the view of Darfur advocates like Yayah, because they co-own and export about 80 percent of Sudan's huge oil supplies. That, and the Chinese subjugation of Tibet, is why Darfur groups call next year's Games "The Genocide Olympics."
Thus, Singer found strong initial support for her coalition idea at Beth Meyer Synagogue in Raleigh. The Islamic Center in Raleigh and the Muslim-American Society also joined quickly, as did Pullen Memorial Baptist Church and the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Raleigh. In a short time, about 50 individuals have become active; Singer hopes to swell those ranks and the number of religious congregations, too, as the work goes forward. The schedule upcoming:
"There are no easy answers to complicated questions," Singer says, "and I'm neither a diplomat nor an expert. But how complicated is it to go in—in a genocide—and save people's lives?"
To learn more about Darfur, see www.savedarfur.org and www.damanga.org. The local coalition could use a volunteer webmaster. It's online now, with updates about upcoming events, at sudanpeace.meetup.com/84; contact Flo Singer at email@example.com.