What Difference?

by Jennie Kaufman

Normally I would say, “I can’t go, of course”—to a march on Washington? No time, no money, no need to think further. But there was this museum exhibit I was hot to see in DC, and I’d been checking Amtrak fares from New York. I could go if I really wanted to. So when the Save Darfur Coalition announced the rally against genocide this spring, I was caught.

The April 30 rally was meant to urge our leaders to push harder to stop the rape and slaughter in western Sudan. More than 200,000 people have been killed and more than 2 million driven from their homes since rebel attacks ignited violence in 2003 and the government responded by setting loose the janjaweed militias. The moral imperative had me by the throat.

I got a hotel room and booked a train. I would have gone on a bus, with a group, had I found a bus or a group. I was too shy and too busy to organize one. Instead, we would be only two, my boyfriend Steve and me. Our response to the moral imperative was looking kind of flaccid. What difference could we make? Was this not an embarrassingly futile gesture?

I emailed a friend: “We’re going to DC this weekend to demand an end to genocide (hope it works!).”

 

We get into Washington late Saturday afternoon. We wander toward the memorials, submitting to the effect of DC-as-democracy-theme-park. But we are here to participate in this ideal. We are here to be louder than our inaudible New York votes.

The Vietnam War memorial doesn’t feel like a theme park. It’s like wading into a swamp of ongoing national grief. When I see the signed football that someone left at the base of a wall of names, I start crying. I’m glad I have sunglasses.

After emerging from the swamp, I want to take our troubles to Lincoln. He still looks magnificent in white marble, but he seems too distant to help. Then I notice on the map the Franklin D. Roosevelt memorial, installed in 1997. Far out on the Tidal Basin, it’s a series of outdoor rooms, a broad ramble of stone and water. In one of the quotes carved there, Eleanor says that the president’s polio had given him the strength and courage to learn “the greatest of all lessons—infinite patience and never-ending persistence.”

That’s what I needed to hear.

 

We’re walking to dinner that night, and we pass a sign at the edge of the sidewalk that reads, END ROAD WORK. “That’s the first protest we’ve seen,” says Steve.

 

The sun is intense on Sunday, but a breeze keeps it cool. Giant screens flank the stage, and you can hear the PA clearly a block and a half away. The crowd is gathering, but there’s still room to grab a spot on the grass. We sit down while we can and look around at our comrades.

“It’s nice to see the young people,” a woman behind me says. And they are everywhere, high-schoolers with matching T-shirts and strong lungs. One group chants “Save Darfur”; their red shirts say Hadassah and Young Judaea. I don’t know why there are a couple of older Chinese women among them. They also chant “Not on our watch.” It has the unified rhythm of the crowd at a college basketball game.

A block of people whom I presume are Sudanese is moving down the path with a banner, chanting “Yes yes USA,” and something about hope.

A Tennessee delegation passes; I hear a woman complain, “This isn’t my idea of a good time, trying to find a place to sit . . .”

The crowd is, according to their T-shirts, overwhelmingly Jewish. Out of curiosity, we go in search of sign-waving Christians. After we squeeze around the back of the stage and down the other side, we see more African-American and African families and small groups. We find sign-waving Unitarians, at least, before stopping in a pocket that’s not too pushy and offers a decent view.

The rally begins with the emcee, Joe Madison, reminding us of President Bush’s scrawl on a report about the massacre in Rwanda: “Not on my watch.” He calls on Bush and other world leaders to “move this genocide from the margin of your reports to the center of your consciousness.”

The focus, I’m glad to see, stays entirely on Darfur—very few signs address other topics, even Iraq. One sign reads, “Vegan Jews Against Genocide.” Well, duh.

The wind loosens seeds from the American elm trees that line the Mall, and they fall on us in weightless showers. Seeds land on the hair of the women in front of me: curly black hair, short straight auburn, messy blonde dreadlocks. I take a picture.

A four-leaf clover of green balloons lifts off into the sky.

Former U.S. Marine Captain Brian Steidle was an observer in Darfur from September 2004 to February 2005. “Today every one of us is Sudanese,” he says. “Ana Sudani—I am Sudanese.” He lays out the desired action: We need to protect people with U.N. forces; prosecute the perpetrators; and appoint a special envoy to protect the peace. He says we should tell our leaders, “We’re mad as hell and we’re not going to vote for them anymore.” A gray-haired man standing to my right says, “We never did.”

Sun still hot; breeze still cool. People on cell phones are trying to find each other.

We see a few cops on horses near the press tent, but otherwise no security is visible within the crowd. This lends a sense of innocence—that we are to be trusted.

When Elvir Camdzic of the San Francisco Bay Area Darfur Coalition, himself a survivor of genocide in Bosnia, starts repeating, “Stand up, America!” he gets the biggest applause I’ve heard so far. “Stand up, America! . . . and the murderers will stand down.”

To my left two kids crouch on the ground, sifting gravel through their fingers. The smaller one starts crawling forward, like a turtle. When he gets too far, he is gently lifted by his mother and brought back to his starting point. Again and again he crawls forward; again and again he is retrieved. I will take this as an indication that we have an inborn urge to persist.

But when the emcee says, “This is the first genocide in the 21st century and it will be the last,” I can’t feel that hopeful.

A Georgetown junior onstage says the death of 200,000 people while the world idly watches “is simply disgusting and unacceptable.” Hard to argue with his choice of words.

A lot of people are talking now, ignoring the speakers. I look at women’s belts. One says BAD GIRL. One says LOVE. Many women have beautiful handmade earrings.

Illinois’ new senator, Barack Obama, gets huge cheers—including from me, an Illinoisan. He talks about times of moral ambiguity, about how, when we don’t know the proper course of action, we withdraw into inaction. I nod in recognition. “This is not one of those times,” Obama points out.

He mentions the late former senator Paul Simon; at the sound of his dear name, I raise a hand to my heart. Obama tells us what Simon said about the genocide in Rwanda: “If one hundred people in every single congressional district had written to their senators, the atrocities that happened there would not have happened.”

Darfur refugee Tragi Mustafa says, “I would love to give every one of you a hug if possible.” She wants to hug everyone at all the rallies on the continent today. “We are so proud of all this unity of human beings.” But please, she adds, more women in the U.N. troops. No more peacekeepers sexually abusing women.

 

It’s 4:40; people are starting to leave. The rally was scheduled to end at 4:30. Others have room to rest on the grass now. There are pockets of loud chatting as the speeches continue.

The introduction of the Clooneys, even before their names are mentioned, gets people standing up again. George presents his father, Nick, who reports on what the two of them saw in Sudan and Chad last week. “Here’s what it is,” Nick says. “My friends, they are all alone.” The crowd goes dead quiet.

“They are by themselves. There is no one to help them,” he continues. We listen soberly to his description of their hunger, sickness, despair. He says, “All they want to do is go home in peace.”

The sun and the rally have peaked. We sit on the grass in the slanting light. There is a song for the sisters of the world. A white girl in skirt and boots has a sunburn on the back of her knees.

By 5:30, it’s over. Those who are left pick up water bottles and trash. I wonder how I feel. I hope our show of strength will make a difference to the powerful. But a rally like this also needs to do something for the people who attend—it needs to feed their hope and conviction. Has it changed me?

 

In the New York Times the next day, there is a picture of Martin Gurak of San Diego, native of southern Sudan. In his eyes, the profound pain and sorrow are undeniable: something he loves is being destroyed.

Elvir Camdzic, the Bosnian survivor, said that to the victims, the world’s silence hurts more than the violence.

Back in Brooklyn Monday night, I start to email my mother in Illinois, with the customary subject line “home safe.” And then I stop. How can I say that?

How can I use those words after this weekend?


www.savedarfur.org

Back to Kabo Group Commentary & Fiction