Darfur advocacy groups prepare for Pittsburgh G-20 Summit

By Lindsay Carroll

Isaac Leju-Loding was 18 when he emigrated from Kajo Keji, in southern Sudan, to Florida in… Isaac Leju-Loding was 18 when he emigrated from Kajo Keji, in southern Sudan, to Florida in 1989.

It was hot in Florida. It was too much like home, he said. The snow he saw on television fascinated him, so he eventually moved to Pittsburgh to experience winter.

Now president of the Sudanese Community in Pittsburgh, Leju-Loding works to fight the violence occurring in his home country. There, his people protest the destabilization and genocide that’s occuring — for religious and economic reasons — in southern Sudan and Darfur.

He and about 100 others — including members from Pitt’s chapter of Students Taking Action Now: Darfur — held a “Solemn Walk” Downtown yesterday to rally international attention to the genocide in Darfur. It was part of their preparation for the G-20 Summit, which will be held in Pittsburgh Sept. 24-25.

STAND and other groups, like the Pittsburgh Darfur Emergency Coalition, plan to advocate during the G-20 to draw attention to the genocide in the east African country.

Anna Siegel, Pitt STAND’s director of advocacy, said the group is working with the Save Darfur Coalition and Pittsburgh Darfur Emergency Coalition to increase those organizations’ visibility.

“We’re not doing protesting,” Siegel said. “It’s just education and visibility.”

Siegel said the groups plan on creating an art installation to be placed outside Phipps Conservatory during its diplomatic dinner. STAND also plans on handing out literature on the genocide in Darfur, as well as educating people about crises in Burma and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

“We want to make it clear that students and residents of Pittsburgh are very concerned about international issues and that we see very clearly how our economic investments affect the world,” Siegel said.

STAND earned the support of City Council, which thanked the local chapters of the group for helping to organize protest postcards, which will be mailed to President Barack Obama.

City council members Bill Peduto, Darlene Harris and Doug Shields and state Rep. Dan Frankel, D-Allegheny County, marched behind the drumbeat provided by the Guinea West African Drum and Dance Ensemble.

They marched from the City-County Building to Mellon Park, where they held a concert and leaders in the Sudanese community spoke about the conflict.

Allegheny County councilman Bill Robinson said local officials and activists should make sure G-20 world leaders know Pittsburgh cares about Darfur.

“I don’t want them to think they can just duck under a table and have a good time,” Robinson said.

Many of the marchers held signs with names of some of the 3,300 villages that have been destroyed in Sudan during the conflict. Bystanders took pictures with their BlackBerrys.

Last year, the International Criminal Court charged Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir with crimes against humanity.

Leju-Loding said al-Bashir and his regime in Sudan’s capital, Khartoum, is trying to destabilize the southern part of the country to suppress people’s resistance to the current dictatorship.

Sudan’s north is dominated by lighter-skinned Muslims who prefer to be called Arabs, while Christian Africans inhabit the south and the west in Darfur, Leju-Loding said.

Many Americans don’t realize the differences between the peoples of Sudan and how they identify themselves, he said.

“It’s not the [skin] color, the phenotype,” he said. “It’s the people’s mindset. Whoever identifies himself or herself as Christian, we must respect that. Whoever identifies himself as Muslim, we must respect that, too.”

When Leju-Loding immigrated to the United States, it was a different time in Sudan. The country had yet to enter civil war.

He said the Khartoum regime now resists Christian dissent toward Shariah law, which he said includes rules that lowered the status of women and implemented severe punishments for trivial crimes. It also supplies militias like the Janjaweed, which destabilize the regions by raping women and killing people in villages.

The government makes it difficult for Sudanese people to vote for secession because it doesn’t want to lose oil interests in southern Sudan or rubber resources in Darfur, Leju-Loding said.

Now safe in the United States, Leju-Loding said he worries about his mother, who still lives in Sudan.

Bullet fragments hit her leg during part of the violence, and she still suffers pain from her wounds. Leju-Loding said he doesn’t know if his mother can obtain adequate hospital care.

He said he also worries that the Obama administration will use the Sudanese people as “guinea pigs” in its effort to demonstrate its commitment to maintaining peace with Muslims, despite Obama’s promise to help the region.

“Pressure from the U.S. is crucial, because if it doesn’t do anything, its reputation [for human rights] is on the line,” he said.

Students have been important to helping the Sudanese in Pittsburgh and their cause, Leju-Loding added.

“Students are helping a lot,” he said. “But we’d love for that number to expand.”