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A call for action to help end atrocities in Darfur

Among the many unspeakable acts of brutality taking place in the Darfur region of western Sudan are the countless rapes of women and girls by government-backed soldiers.

Yet the horror of it was on the lips of every woman to whom American Jewish World Service President Ruth V. Messinger spoke when she visited the East African nation in August 2004 and October 2005. The ongoing genocidal campaign in Darfur has claimed more than 450,000 lives since February 2003.

Messinger, a former Manhattan Borough president, Wednesday offered a firsthand account of the crisis during a lecture in Temple Shaarey Zedek, Amherst.

"When you're there, it's really quite striking, because everyone tells you what happened to them. The stories sound overwhelmingly the same," Messinger said Wednesday, during an interview with The Buffalo News, prior to her lecture.

She also explained what the American Jewish World Service is doing to help stop the atrocities in Darfur. The $30 million international development agency has taken on 270 projects in more than 35 countries throughout the Americas, Africa and Asia. In Darfur, one project the American Jewish World Service has undertaken with the assistance of its international partners is providing "reproductive rights" counselors -- rape counselors stationed in refugee camps throughout the region to elicit the women's stories.

The women want to talk, Messinger said, because they know -- or are hopeful, at least -- that talking will make it stop. However, almost no one wants to own up to a firsthand account with such brutality.

"The subtext to that is that almost everyone you talk to doesn't mention the word rape. And if you ask them, 'Were you raped?' the almost universal answer was, 'No, but my neighbor was or let me tell you what happened to my cousin,' " Messinger said.

"So, basically, every woman was raped and nobody is going to talk about it themselves. So one of the reasons that we've been paying for counselors is to really have somebody on the ground in a different fashion than be visiting for three days to start eliciting stories," Messinger added.

The situation on the ground in Darfur is more dangerous and volatile than is being reported around the world, she said, and requires outside economic, diplomatic and economic pressure to end the atrocities.

Messinger said her agency also seeks to raise the consciousness of Jews throughout North America to embrace their role as "global citizens" to affect whatever change they can bring to bear in Darfur.

Irwin H. Gelman, a member of the board of the Holocaust Resource Center and the board of Hillel, accompanied Messinger to The News on Wednesday. Given recent genocidal campaigns in Rwanda, Bosnia and Cambodia and his parents' experiences as survivors of the Holocaust, Gelman said the "evil" in Darfur will spread if good people do nothing.

"If I see this going on and I do nothing, I would have learned nothing from what my parents went through," he said.

e-mail: hmcneil@buffnews.com

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