Student activists rise again – this time for Darfur

She sleeps less, goes out less, and has reduced her course load to work 30 to 40 hours a week organizing student campaigns. Her goal: to end the suffering in Darfur, Sudan, perhaps the world's worst humanitarian crisis.

"If people are still dying, I need to keep working," says Bailey Cato, a University of Oklahoma senior and a regional coordinator for a student antigenocide coalition called STAND. And tomorrow she'll be fasting – along with Don Cheadle, Hollywood star of "Hotel Rwanda," and other celebrities and politicians in a show of solidarity with the people of Darfur.

Student fasts are nothing new, of course. But the Darfur crisis has caught on with American activists in a way not seen since the anti-apartheid movement of the 1980s and early '90s. And the big surprise is: They're achieving results.

In the past month alone:

•The US appointed a special envoy to Darfur, bowing to pressure after an international day of protests – including a rally of some 30,000 in New York's Central Park.

•California passed legislation to stop investing in companies supporting the Sudan regime – the fifth state to do so. More than two dozen colleges and universities are also in the process of divesting.

"The grass-roots people have really kept the issue alive and forced the hand of the governments," says Alex de Waal, a fellow of the Global Equity Initiative at Harvard University, who has been advising the African Union on Darfur. He says the UN Security Council's decision in March 2005 to refer Darfur war crimes cases to the International Criminal Court and the US move two years ago to label the conflict "genocide" would not have happened without advocates' pressure.

That pressure is building. Tuesday, student musicians from Berklee School of Music in Boston released a CD dedicated to the women of Darfur. Proceeds will benefit aid programs there run by Mercy Corps, an international humanitarian group. Last week, a coalition of Cincinnati-area religious, civic, and student groups held "Five Days for Darfur," a series of awareness-raising events.

The Darfur conflict erupted three years ago when ethnic minorities took up arms against Sudan's Arab-dominated government to fight for autonomy and a greater share of the region's resources. The government responded by unleashing a mainly Arab militia against villages suspected of supporting the rebels. More than 200,000 people have died. Another 2.5 million have been displaced.

Activists' priority: UN peacekeepers

As the situation has worsened, activists have pushed for change. Most advocates want UN peacekeepers sent to Darfur.

"I think [grass-roots efforts] have made [Darfur] almost a top-tier issue for the Bush administration," says John Prendergast, a senior adviser of the Brussels-based International Crisis Group. "There's no question [President] Bush feels political pressure to respond."

Mr. Bush said Monday the UN should send peacekeepers without delay.

One reason the Darfur movement has succeeded – where many similar international efforts have failed – is the US move to label the crisis genocide. "The comparison of Darfur to [the 1994 genocide in] Rwanda is what has been most potent here," says Eric Reeves, a Darfur analyst and Smith College professor.

While appearances by celebrities like George Clooney have been crucial, grass-roots efforts have made the difference – especially those of young people, he adds. "A lot of students now really only know Rwanda as historical event, and there is a resolve that this will not happen on their watch.... You have to go back to apartheid-era South Africa to find [a movement] this powerful for an issue that doesn't involve US blood or treasure."

STAND, the student antigenocide group, is an example. Since April, it has grown from seven to 55 chapters. When Ms. Cato brought Paul Rusesabagina, the Rwandan whose story inspired the movie "Hotel Rwanda," to her campus last Wednesday, he packed the 750-seat auditorium with an overflow audience of at least 1,200 people. "We're young, idealistic, and we're horrified that genocide can go on in this world," Cato explains.

Still, activists face an uphill battle. The Sudanese government has rejected a Security Council resolution passed last month that calls for 22,000 UN troops to replace the underfunded 7,000-member African Union force.

Conflicting priorities for US

The US also has reasons not to push the Khartoum-based government too hard, observers say. Sudan has helped the US penetrate terror networks it might never have been able to on its own. Also, the US does not want to provoke further instability, says Mr. de Waal. Putting UN troops on the ground would "inflame the situation," he says.

The Bush administration also worries that a peace deal in a separate decades-long conflict – between Sudan's Muslim and mostly Arab north and its Christian south – would unravel if Khartoum felt cornered.

For now, the African Union has agreed to extend its stay in Sudan, which was set to expire at the end of September, until the end of the year and add 4,000 troops. "The advocacy movement will not give up on this," says Reeves, who backs UN intervention.

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