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Matt Kohn

Matt Kohn

Posted: September 14, 2010 06:46 PM

Lately, our headlines have been taken up by tragic applications of our right to free speech. One bonehead from Florida can set the stage.

I say let's look at a different group of people getting together for entirely the opposite reasons.

On September 15th, a small group of individuals and organizations are participating in Sudan Freedom Walk 2010, a 22-day march from New York to the Congress in Washington, DC. Go to http://sudanfreedom.org/ to see the complete schedule.

It will be a walk for Muslims and Christians, Northerners and Southerners, anyone marginalized or anyone supporting marginalized people's rights. It will be made of groups who consider each other former enemies. It has been endorsed by the Save Darfur coalition and Amnesty International.

The first walk happened in 2006. It started at the United Nations. It featured Simon Deng, a tireless Sudan activist and former slave, and a short speech by Manute Bol. Manute is no longer with us, but his words that day are still true: "Sudan Government are very aggressive so they scared off peacekeeping... I don't want to have happen to Western Sudan what happened to Southern Sudan." In other words, Northerners and Southerners must stick together. And so must the various international groups that raise awareness, lobby and provide on-the-ground support. The first walk took weeks and wound down the eastern seaboard. In the Capitol, the marchers were met by Sen. Hillary Clinton and Sen. Sam Brownback. At that time, the public paid a lot more attention to Sudan.

American citizens, much besieged by domestic politics, don't realize the serious implications of the next 100 days. Our government has not taken up the task of educating them. That is really what the marchers want. Your attention. The 2010 march has been called because South Sudan will vote to decide whether or not the South will becomes it's own country. Sudan-watchers like the New York Times' Nicholas Kristof has written that he and many others support the vote but fear that the vote may trigger a resumption of civil war. I personally don't think that's the case, but the last war killed over 2.5 million just in the South. By letting Khartoum know that people around the world are watching the outcome of the Referendum, we can create pressure for peace.

And while separation may help the Southerners, those in Western Darfur -- The Darfuris -- have faced a surge in random violence in the IDP camps and against civilians in villages akin to the worst months of genocide six years ago. Dafuri civilians and rebel groups have been pinned down, pummeled, and picked off for months. The West may not put boots on the ground, but you -- a well-intentioned American civilian -- can also do more to put pressure on Khartoum.

At the very end of last year, I visited the refugee camps in Chad along with the Darfur Human Rights Organization. I was only there for a week, and three babies died at birth out of a population of 20,000. My presence, in and of itself, created danger as more than 20 NGO workers had been kidnapped or killed in the previous six months. I interviewed the president of the refugee camp. He had a very serious complaint. President Obama and the leaders of many western countries had flown in for a visit to his camp, but since then, he'd heard nothing. In fact, a few months later, the UN Security Council voted unanimously to reduce the number of peacekeepers working in that volatile area.

Freedom Walk 2010 is a strategic demonstration of solidarity that exists between Southern Sudanese Christians and Northern Sudanese Muslims, at the very moment that war may break out along the religious fault line that divides the country. Estimates are that 85% of Southerners will vote in January for secession. This Freedom Walk is not a statement of whether Southerners should vote for unity or secession. This walk is a statement that whether united or separate, the Northern and Southern Sudanese do not want war. A quick review of internet discussions on the referendum by Southern Sudanese reveals that the vast majority of those who want secession are not motivated by enmity towards Northerners, but by distrust of the oppressive elite that controls Khartoum.

By marching with these amazing and interesting people, you will be able to work closely with dedicated men and women who themselves are from opposite sides of fence back at home. Volunteer by creating news coverage in your area and spreading the news widely. If you have ever wanted to be part of a group of people working to stop genocide, now is your chance.