Candlelight Vigil Held at UCLA to Mourn the Dead in Darfur
Students assemble in the rain to pay tribute to the 300,000 who have died, as part of "A Week of Awareness, A Call to Action" on the continuing genocide in Darfur, Sudan.
Published: Thursday, March 03, 2005
UCLA, Wednesday, March 2 -- A bare fifty people gathered in a light rain tonight at the foot of Bruin Walk on the third night of a week of awareness of the ongoing killing of black farmers by Arab militias and government troops in the Darfur provinces of western Sudan. The students stood with candles and some with umbrellas, solemnly watching and bearing witness to an evil far away that they did not have the power to halt.
Strings of white Christmas tree lights had been strung around the stage where rock bands usually come to entertain students from the Ackerman Student Union across the walk, just in case the rain was too heavy for the candlight vigil that had been announced. On the stage was an open mike in place of the planned programs of other nights of the week of observance. A few volunteers circulated in the small crowd handing out long candles girdled with paper cups to catch the wax drippings and offering to light tapers that had blown out. As the candles were lit, people shielded them with their hands to keep the wind and rain from extinguishing them. When a candle was held out to me I took it and held it up with everybody else, getting into the spirit of the night.
After a few minutes of silence a trim blond woman stepped to the microphone. She had what sounded like a British-South African accent and said she had grown up in one of the most repressive countries in the world. She asked if anyone there could visualize what 300,000 dead bodies looked like, the number killed in Darfur since early 2003. "If 9/11 was America's worst tragedy, this would be 9/11 every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday for a whole year," she said. A ripple of visible pain rolled across the wet faces. Why did the U.S. and other governments turn their back on Africa? the speaker asked. Why were people so ready to give to the victims of the tsunami, a natural disaster, and so cold hearted when the killing was deliberate? She asked who decided that American lives are more valuable than Iraqi lives or African lives.
A young man came next. He read a poem he had written about Darfur, about Arab nomads and their killing raids on African farmers; it had a line about the anguish of parents who watched as their children were thrown into fires.
A filmmaker named Mark Friedman, who has worked in varioius parts of Africa, spoke of the smell of death in Darfur villages where he spent six weeks, and how after he came home he could not feel at ease reading the sports page anymore or watching television or all the other routine, self-isolating activites of his life, without seeing in his mind the horrors that were passing without response in Darfur. He said that in his life here he has always had a well-developed sense of potential danger, that he doesn't walk down dark alleys at night, but that the threat the people of Darfur face is of such a wholly different order as to be difficult to imagine, where almost every family has had children, parents, or brothers and sisters murdered.
From here the downside of the open mike format began to assert itself. A young woman gave an emotional recital of one of her poems. It was not about Darfur, although it contained a lot of personal angst. It rhymed insistently, with couplets that paired spit and shit.
A man with long hair and a shaggy beard strode up to the mike, declaring volubly, "I really dig being here!" He did an enthusiastic rendition of"Amazing Grace" acapella in two languages. The first was English, where he led with a pleasant baritone. By the time he reached the second language his voice started to crack and I had the impression but could not be certain that he was now singing in Spanish. I thought of the Haight-Ashbury in 1966.
Another young woman followed, with another personal poem that was not about Darfur. By some extraordinary coincidence, she also rhymed spit with shit.
The crowd stood there stoically in the rainy night, guarding their guttering candles, mourning for the dead and dying in a faraway place, and growing angry at their government for failing to use its power to help. The rain put my candle out. I returned it to one of the volunteers and walked off before the end, up the hill toward Bunche Hall.