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Taking Action Now: An Interview with Nate Wright

سودانيزاونلاين.كوم
sudaneseonline.com
8/30/2005 5:00pm

Taking Action Now: An Interview with Nate Wright
From: "Katia M. Peltekian"
Date: Tue, 30 Aug 2005 19:13:08 +0500 (AMST)

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Taking Action Now: An Interview with Nate Wright

News: Mother Jones' student activist of the year talks about Darfur

Interviewed By Michael Beckel

September 1, 2005

Mother Jones, CA
Aug 29 2005

Tens of thousands of people-perhaps hundreds of thousands, according
to some estimates-have been killed over the past two and a half years
in the genocide ravaging the Darfur region of western Sudan. As
Mother Jones senior editor Monika Bauerlein recently advocated,
international pressure could readily end the bloodshed and bring aid
to the suffering. However, few nations have mustered the resolve to
tackle the crisis, particularly the United States, where the Bush
administration has condemned the killing but done little to intervene.

Among the few who have stepped up to fill the void is 21-year-old
Georgetown senior Nate Wright. A year ago, Wright co-founded Students
Taking Action Now: Darfur (STAND) with senior Ben Bixby, the president
of the campus's Jewish Student Association, and with help from the
U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. Their goal was to raise awareness
about the ongoing genocide, raise relief funds for humanitarian aid,
and lobby for immediate political action. To their surprise, their
plan didn't just light a spark at Georgetown-it spread like wildfire
to other schools, and Wright's national STAND Coalition now has tens
of thousands of students connected across nearly 200 campuses in the
United States and Canada.

This grassroots effort is keeping the hope of U.S. and international
action to stop the genocide alive, despite the deafening silence
in Washington and the major media. "The American news media aren't
even covering the Darfur genocide as well as we covered the Armenian
genocide in 1915," wrote New York Times op-ed columnist Nicholas
Kristof in July. "And, incredibly," continued Kristof, whose passionate
dispatches over the past year and a half have routinely reminded
readers not to forget about Sudan, "mtvU (the MTV channel aimed at
universities) has covered Darfur more seriously than any network or
cable station." When Kristof praised mtvU, he was indirectly commending
Wright, who was one of three student correspondents the network sent to
record the lives of Darfurian refugees in eastern Chad in March. (Their
remarkable photographs and journals can be viewed at mtvU.com.)

Mother Jones recently talked with Wright-whom we named our 2005
Student Activist of the Year-about his experiences in the refugee
camps, ways to take action now, and the history of STAND.

MotherJones.com: What is STAND?

Nate Wright: We're about creating the political noise that says
there has to be a better response to the crisis in Sudan; we're about
highlighting where we see a better response; and in doing so, I think
that gives a lot of hope to the people in Darfur. Last September, we
outlined an approach where we would look at it from three different
angles-raising awareness, raising relief funds, and pushing for a
political solution. We were extremely, extremely active right at
the beginning of the semester. Georgetown STAND was hosting three or
four events on campus a week. Almost immediately we gained so much
support on our own campus that we began looking at ways in which
we could spread the idea of student activism to other campuses. By
October, we had other schools that were adopting the STAND format of
approaching it in those three different areas.

MJ: What form were those events taking?

NW: For example, I put together a speaker series that would have
one to two speakers a week coming to campus to talk about it from
a variety of different angles so we could educate ourselves on the
nuances of the issues like international law and how international
law plays into why can the United States call it genocide and then
not act. We'd do other things like have green ribbons for people to
wear as a way of raising consciousness. We'd do fund raising events
for the humanitarian relief efforts. We'd have hundreds of students
from Georgetown writing letters to [then-Secretary of State] Colin
Powell and to their representatives, calling for them to take a stand
on this issue and articulate exactly what they were going to do.
There were a variety of ways we were approaching it, and most of the
work that we were doing was replicable on other campuses.

MJ: What were some of your biggest successes?

NW: On November 20, we held one of our first big events, the STANDFast:
Essentially the idea was that you'd give up a purchase of a luxury
item for the day-dessert, coffee, soda, whatever it might be-and you
would donate the money that you would have spent on it to humanitarian
relief efforts. At Georgetown, we ended up getting well over a thousand
people who all decided to give up alcohol on a Saturday night right
before a major break-one of the big party nights and 15 percent
of the student body gives up alcohol to show their support for the
people in Sudan. We gathered a lot of media attention. For example,
MTV came down and covered that, and the Washington Post ran a story
on the student movement.

When we held a conference here at Georgetown in conjunction with
the Holocaust Memorial Museum in February, we had over 400 students
from around 100 different universities across the United States and
Canada. That was where we began to form what is now the national STAND
Coalition. At the conference we also announced a partnership with mtvU
to host a future event, and mtvU announced that they would be sending
three college students into the Darfur region to document the stories
of the refugees for two weeks in March. Those students were myself,
Andrew Karlsruher, a film student at Boston University, and Stephanie
Nyombayire, a student at Swarthmore College and a citizen of Rwanda who
lost nearly a hundred family members in the Rwandan genocide. The three
of us went into a lot of the camps along the border in eastern Chad
and spent nearly two weeks interviewing a lot of the people and putting
together a documentary that documents the stories of the refugees.

MJ: What was it like producing that documentary? What was it like
being there?

NW: You want to be able to go over there and say that when you come
back, things are going to change. You want to be able to promise [the
refugees] so much more than you can deliver them. It definitely gives
you an incredible sense of helplessness when you can't really bring
them anything more than a voice. I mean, they are incredibly grateful
just for the opportunity to be heard and to know that they haven't
been forgotten, but there is sort of this sense of helplessness. At
the same point in time, there are so many absolutely amazing stories.
The first refugee that we met as we were going to these camps in
eastern Chad started talking about these students from D.C. who were
giving up their privileges to help the people in Darfur. It even
took me a minute to realize that he was talking about the project
that we had done: When we did that first STANDFast back in November,
myself and several other of the students did an interview with Voice
of America, and he could have been listening to my voice. It was
something that he was incredibly touched by-the fact that students
in the United States hadn't forgotten about them and cared about them
and were trying to do something to make their lives better.

And even though everyone would talk about how they didn't have enough
food and water, whenever you walked into anyone's tent, you would
have to ask them not bring you any food or water because they're
just so hospitable. Even though they can tell you've got money-we're
wearing clothing that hasn't been torn apart-to see these people in
these conditions offering you food and water, it's incredibly moving.
I don't think that they can really understand how people in the United
States could see this and not do something. It really seemed as if
that idea was beyond them, that someone could see their suffering
and not want to help them.

MJ: How were the children in these camps dealing with the tragedies
they've experienced?

NW: If you ask the children anything about what they've been through,
they'll freeze up most of the time. They won't be able to talk about
it. At one of the camps that we went to, this little kid came up
to me and started shaking my hand. He's holding this booklet in
his hand, and I opened up the booklet and started looking through
it, and there were all these pictures of armed men attacking their
village, helicopters bombing a village, people getting shot, and a
village being burned down-all these horrific pictures being drawn
by a school kid who's smiling just because he wants someone to pay
attention to him. You ask what each of these things are and hear,
"That's my aunt," and it's a picture of this woman getting shot. Or,
"That's my cousin," and it's a picture of a woman getting raped. And
when I started looking through his pictures, the next thing I know,
there's a group of 40 children, each of them holding up the same
sorts of pictures. I ended up spending two and a half, three hours,
just looking at picture after picture after picture of what these kids
had drawn. That's incredibly moving, and it's so hard to leave them.

MJ: What can an ordinary person do to help this cause?

NW: A lot of people don't realize how simple it is to really help
these people. Fifty cents will feed a refugee for a day. Nineteen
cents will give a schoolchild a meal. It's incredibly amazing how far
a dollar will go just in the humanitarian aid effort. It doesn't take
a whole lot to really make a difference for these people. Several
Congressmen have done a lot of legislation on this. Both the Darfur
Accountability Act and the Darfur Genocide Accountability Act take
people from both sides of the spectrum who have never before worked
on anything, and yet, on Darfur they agree. But unfortunately there
hasn't been enough pressure to get through. Even something as simple
as calling up a representative, talking to them about this, asking
them what their stance has been on this, and pointing to legislation
is good. If nothing else, just be a voice that says, "I care about
the people in Sudan, and I want to see to this changed." There's just
so many different small things that people can do to really change
things. You do what you can with what you've been given, and I really
think that holds true everywhere.

MJ: How did you win the Darfur Activism Award?

NW: Coming off the second STANDFast with mtvU on April 7-which
coincided with the anniversary of the start of the genocide in Rwanda
and had 170 universities, 18 universities in Canada, and dozens of high
schools participating in it-the next big success was that organizations
like Reebok wanted to be involved in the student movement. They decided
that they would offer a $40,000 grant to one of the student groups
on Darfur who would put together the best proposal. It was narrowed
down to three different universities and then opened up to voting on
mtvU, and Georgetown won the $40,000 grant. So we've got a lot of big
plans. We have had tremendous success in raising a lot of awareness,
getting a lot of college student involved in it, and now we're looking
toward the future. We're planning on a larger conference in August,
we're planning a new national solidarity fast, and we're also looking
to create a sponsor and camp program. We have been working with a lot
of the humanitarian organizations, so you'd essentially have local
areas inside the United States sponsoring specific camps, specifically
sponsoring the education in camps in Darfur and eastern Chad.

MJ: How will you set up this sponsor program?

NW: We're working with both UNICEF, which builds and helps run a lot
of the schools, and the World Food Programme, which provides school
feeding. You can't really concentrate in school if you're extremely
hungry. A lot of this is coming off of the trip that I took there,
because we spent a lot of time trying to talk to people our age and
asking them if they could ask for anything from the college students
in America, what it would be. And the overwhelming response was,
"We want to be able to educate ourselves," largely because they see
that as the ultimate remedy to be make sure something like this never
happens again in the future of Sudan.

MJ: What do you see as a real, sustainable solution to the crisis
in Darfur?

NW: I personally think that if we, the international community,
had responded earlier to the crisis, there would have been so many
more options. Where we are now, I think the solution to the crisis
looks like getting the Sanctions Committee for the United Nations
to actually implement the sanctions, so I think there has to be
pressure on the Sanctions Committee to do that. No one thinks that
Khartoum will allow anyone into Darfur other than the African Union,
so I think at this point in time we need to focus on being able
to strengthen the African Union, which has about 3,000 troops in
there now. It's an area roughly the size of Texas, though. When the
troops are actually able to get to a camp [of internally displaced
people inside Sudan] before it is attacked, they've been incredibly
successful at being able to avert attacks. But the numbers are too
small and so ineffective because they don't have logistical support
most of the time. The African Union uses the cars from humanitarian aid
workers. There needs to be a lot done by the international community,
by organizations like NATO, to support the AU troops.

I also think that efforts need to be made to pressure the United
Nations to send in a peacekeeping force designed to gather evidence
of human rights violations to be able to prosecute the perpetrators
through the International Criminal Court and through other courts. I
think there needs to be a lot of work done to gain the evidence
necessary to prosecute them. The Rwandan courts have incredible
difficulty prosecuting people because so much evidence was lost. I
think if we learn anything from that, it should be that we should
make a concerted effort in any sort of peacekeeping movement to gain
evidence of those human rights violations.

MJ: What do you make of the tremendous successes that STAND has
achieved?

NW: When we were sitting in an auditorium listening to the speech and
presentation of the Holocaust Museum, none of us expected that we'd
be sitting here working on coordinating a coalition that had tens of
thousands of students. We are students who believe in the sanctity
of human life; we believed that there had to be a better answer for
genocide; and we're just taking whatever steps we can see. We've
done a lot to help educate ourselves in finding what the best steps
to take are, but the important thing is to do what you can with what
you've been given.


Michael Beckel is an editorial intern at Mother Jones

http://www.motherjones.com/news/qa/2005/09/nate_wright.html



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