A sea of over 300 students from 42 states, all clad in bright blue t-shirts, fanned out across the U.S. Senate office building on Wednesday to demand an end to the genocide that rages on in the Darfur region of Sudan, where the death toll has climbed to over 300,000. On the eleven year anniversary of the start of the Rwandan genocide, students were taking to the Capitol for the launch of the Genocide Intervention Fund founded just a few months ago by a group of Swarthmore students, led by Mark Hanis and Andrew Sniderman.
The Genocide Intervention Fund takes an unusual strategy – the group is raising funds and lobbying Congress to support the African Union, a force with the will to intervene but not the resources. In a dire situation where our government had failed to take sufficient action, private citizens, primarily young folk, are stepping in. Over the next hundred days, students across the country plan to raise $1 million and write 100,000 letters to members of Congress and the Senate.
At a press conference on Wednesday, which included Senators John Corzine (D-NJ) and Sam Brownbeck (R-KA), and Representatives Earl Blumenhower (D-OR), Barbara Lee (D-CA), and Donald Payne (D-NJ), the most heartfelt call to action came from a TK year-old college student and Rwandan genocide survivor, Stephanie Nyombayire.
“Eleven years ago today,” began the Swarthmore freshman and GIF Outreach Director who recently traveled to Chad with MTV to visit refugees, “One of the most well-organized, fastest and systematic genocides in the world’s history began in my country, Rwanda. 800,000 Rwandans were killed in a hundred days on the sole basis of being Tutsis, or cockroaches as they called us, or moderate Hutus. I lost over 100 of my family members. On the first day of the genocide, my grandmother was shot in front of her daughter…My grandfather escaped only to suffer the same fate a few days later. Many of my uncles and aunts were also killed along with their children. And those who were lucky enough were able to pay to get shot, instead of brutally killed with a machete. No exceptions were made, as the slaughter went from killing fetuses inside pregnant women, to killing the elderly.”
“We must stop the talk and begin the action,” Nyombayire continued. “As you honor the memory of the 800,000 lives we failed to save in 1994, we must refuse to let Darfur become another Rwanda. As Martin Luther King said, ‘In the end we remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of out friends.’”
Intent on not letting that happen again, GIF focuses on the one region that seemed to have learned anything from Rwanda – Africa. In fact, Rwanda was the first country to answer the call for observers in Sudan while the rest of the world continued to condemn the atrocities from afar. With the peacekeepers already on the ground, Andrew and Mark felt they could only truly bring about change by enabling citizens to donate money to increase the African Union’s capacity in Darfur.
During the course of the press conference, students and Senators alike returned to the painful fact that the “never again” of eleven years ago, the same “never again” that reverberated in the aftermath of World War II, had happened yet again. However, the overwhelming message was one of hope.
Gayle Smith, a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and expert in African affairs, who has lived much of her adult life in Africa, has worked closely with GIF, supporting their efforts over the last several months. Speaking to the hundreds of students, many of whom had pulled countless all-nighters in preparation for the launch and will continue to do so for the next one hundred days, Smith told them why she was so excited to receive that email from Mark and Andrew: “You’re sending a signal, all of you, that runs contrary to what a lot of people believe. A lot of people believe that Americans don’t really care, there really isn’t an interest, if we take risks in places like Sudan and Rwanda, we’ll be risking the support of the public, which means votes from the public. You are showing and have shown that this is not the case.”
One after another, representatives took the stage to shower praise on the students. Senator Corzine was wowed by the turnout, telling students: “I’ve been in the US Senate now approaching five years and I don’t think that I have been at a grassroots rally that gives me more inspiration to fight for the fight that is right than what you are all taking on with regard to getting recognition and making sure that we act to stop the genocide in Darfur.”
Senator Sam Brownback, a Republican from Kansas, informed the students that later that evening, members of Congress would gather to watch the film Hotel Rwanda, and he encouraged them to approach their representatives and ask them what they are doing about Darfur. Representative Donald Payne, who took a hard line stance on calling the atrocities in Sudan genocide, told the students that they reminded him of the students who protested against the Vietnam War, and that with the same courage and momentum, the students in that room would be the decisive force.
Summing up the mood of the day, Smith reminded the students, “As dire as the situation is, there is a lot that can be done. And don’t let anyone tell you that it’s not possible to stop this because it’s possible.”
On Tuesday, students at Harvard helped prove Smith’s point. For the first time in Harvard’s history, the school announced it was divesting itself of shares in a company that supports the government of Sudan. This is a major decision for Harvard, a school with a history of resisting public pressure on its investments, having continued to do business with apartheid South Africa. It was also a victory for student leaders who campaigned for divestment, though they say they will continue to push Harvard to disclose the full extent of its investments in companies that do business with the Sudanese government.
Following the press conference, the 300 students took to the halls of the Senate office buildings for scheduled meetings with their representatives in an afternoon-long “Congress Rush.” The goal was to make their concerns heard as well as to encourage Senators and Congress members to co-sponsor the Darfur Accountability Acts on the House and Senate side.
Among the hundreds of college students were two middle schoolers from Greenfield Jewish Day School in Atlanta, GA. Julian Gindi got involved with the Genocide Intervention Fund after doing some research for a speech he had to give on Sudan in his 8th grade oratory class. After hearing Gindi’s speech, his classmate Esther Sokolow decided that she had to help and together they began selling green bracelets to raise money for Darfur and have planned an education program that they will take to Jewish day schools in Atlanta to teach people about the Sudan using the lesson of the Holocaust.
Students all over the country are following the Genocide Intervention Fund’s lead, from UCLA and UNC-Chapel Hill where they have erected model refugee camps to a letter writing campaign by students at at Notre Dame targeting U.S. Catholic Bishops.
After the press conference and the Congress Rush, GIF student staffers stood dazed from excitement and too many sleepless nights, but thrilled at their successes.
Sam Bell, GIF’s Legislative Director and a student at Swarthmore, who had previously lamented the difficulty the group had getting members of Congress to return their calls several months ago, stepped away when his phone rang. He returned aglow; a Congressman who had been blowing him off for months had called him to talk about how they could collaborate.
GIF Vice President Andrew Sniderman slept for several hours following the launch event, but when he woke up and took inventory of the day he and GIF President Mark Hanis had been planning for four sleepless months, he was overwhelmingly pleased with what had taken place. “One barometer that is very hard to measure is what students actually leave with at the end of the day. But from all reports they were re-energized and ready to take the campaign back to their campuses.” Already thinking ahead, he added, “Now we have to make the transition between campus-based activity to action in the community. The most important thing is that students carry this momentum off their campuses and into their communities.”