Seeking outrage over Sudan, marchers get indifference

September 14, 2004|By MICHAEL OLESKER

IN OUR indifference, we speed past those souls at Charles and 25th streets. Consumed by evening rush-hour traffic, they look to us like scruffy relics from the '60s, gathered for an afternoon's nostalgic "Kumbaya" and hoping to pluck at the tattered remains of our collective social conscience.

They hold up hand-lettered signs. One says: "Genocide Works Because the World Doesn't Care." Genocide? In 2004? Did we miss this during the endless hurricane coverage on the evening news? Another says, "Bush/Kerry: Does the Golden Rule Mean Nothing to Either of You?"

If we speed past quickly enough, we won't have to read the words on the signs. The two presidential candidates appear only vaguely aware of the trouble. They're still stuck in Vietnam while the death toll mounts in faraway Sudan, and so does the starvation and the displacement there, and the world goes speeding past the scene.

At Charles and 25th, about 35 demonstrators gathered two weeks ago. Last Tuesday, about a dozen. The numbers drop with public response. This afternoon, they're hoping to get enough souls out there again, Tuesday after Tuesday, until they embarrass a few public officials, or get something started that might spread beyond the city and reach Washington's threadbare sense of outrage.

Most of the marchers are local folks familiar to lost causes. A. Robert Kaufman, father figure to so many futile political fights, has pulled them together. Over the years, Kaufman has run for every political office imaginable and lost them all. But it's never about the election; it's about the issue, about trying to wake up a populace that sometimes seems to sleepwalk through history.

Among the demonstrators are refugees from the Sudanese region of Darfur, where an estimated 50,000 people have been murdered, an estimated 350,000 face starvation, and an estimated 1.5 million are now exiles. The figures are so staggering that President Bush, pausing during the furor over his National Guard record from 35 years ago, issued a statement last week declaring that Sudan's Arab-controlled government has committed genocide against black villagers, saying, "The world cannot ignore the suffering of more than 1 million people."

Then everyone went back to ignoring them.

You could see some of the response out there on Charles Street last week. Mohamed Ahmed stood there with the demonstrators, holding up a sign that said, "Honk If You Want U.S. to Rush Food to Starving in Sudan." Nobody honked. Nobody even paused long enough to read the sign, much less stop and talk about the troubles.

Ahmed arrived here three years ago from Sudan. He said his family is still there. "They're living in camps," he said. "I heard from them the other day. They said the killing goes on. They said it's raining, and there's disease and malaria and no food. They said they're happy if they have clean water."

He stood near Jame Schiracol, who arrived here four years ago from Sudan. "In my village, 220 people were killed," he said. "The others are starving. They're eating leaves like vegetables. This is how they survive."

"People are killing and raping, and the world looks the other way," said Osman Mundu, who arrived here two months ago from Sudan. "Children are dying in front of our eyes. In America, the people are more focused on politics than action."

It's not that we don't care about people who are dying. It's just that, over there on the other side of the planet, we make deals with our conscience: It's somebody else's problem. It can't possibly be as bad as they're saying. We have problems of our own.

Among the demonstrators last week was the Rev. Earl Mason, pastor at St. John's United Methodist Church in Lutherville.

"If this happened in the middle of Europe," he said, "it wouldn't be sloughed off. But Africa? Well, it's less in our consciousness. And, for some, less cared about."

"Because it's black people," said Randy Hall, a retired IRS employee who is one of Mason's parishioners. "If it's a country in Europe, the response would be enormous."

"As a Jew," said Stuart Markoff, a retired professor holding a sign, "it feels like another Holocaust. It's impossible to imagine Washington not doing more than they're doing."

Well, it's an election season. Children starve, but it's still important to inspect each presidential candidate's record during Vietnam. Closer to home, the demonstrators say they've repeatedly tried to contact U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings and Lt. Gov. Michael Steele.

"They are two of the leading black politicians in the country," Kaufman said. "We think they have a responsibility to speak out forcefully on this tragedy. Neither has spoken to us."

It's the political variation of all those drivers out there on Charles Street, speeding past the demonstrators. The demonstrators want to talk about children who are starving. The drivers are rushing home to full dinner plates.

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