Lonely vigil for Darfur

From left: Jeanne Tustian, David Allbaugh and Laura Cutler have spent years  demonstrating outside the Sudanese embassy in protest of the genocide in Darfur. (Photo by Justin Katz)
From left: Jeanne Tustian, David Allbaugh and Laura Cutler have spent years demonstrating outside the Sudanese embassy in protest of the genocide in Darfur. (Photo by Justin Katz)

Laura Cutler spends one Sunday afternoon of every month standing outside the Embassy of the Republic of Sudan with signs in tow that read “Bashir Must Go,” a reference to the African country’s dictator, and “Honk for Darfur.”

She speaks about Darfur, a war-torn region of Sudan, with fervor. But she fears the public is growing numb to the atrocities committed against the country’s people.

“There’s a sense of fatigue” among the American public, she said Sunday, occasionally interrupted by honking cars passing by on Massachusetts Avenue. “It breaks my heart that that’s the case, that we’ve become so inured to suffering.”

Cutler, a member of Adas Israel Congregation, works with the Darfur Interfaith Network, a group of local religious organizations, to bring attention to the ongoing genocide in the African country. Her monthly demonstrations may be small — just two people joined her in front of the embassy — but she feels that she can’t be silent. In Darfur she sees another Holocaust.


“[We] felt the connection between [Darfur and] the Holocaust when the Jews in Europe, who were sent in trains to the gas chambers, had no voice of anyone in power,” she said. “I feel the same way about these African villagers in Darfur that have no voice. They have no political constituency, and they are innocent victims of a calculated genocide.”

Sudan has been ravaged by armed conflict since 2003, when rebel groups accused the government of oppressing Darfur’s non-Arab population. President Omar al-Bashir has been indicted multiple times in the International Criminal Court on charges of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. He remains in power and his government refuses to recognize the ICC, which has served several arrest warrants.

Cutler became involved in advocacy work in 2006. She credited then-Adas Rabbi Charles Feinberg with leading the Washington Jewish community’s initial outcry over the genocide. She began her demonstrations at that time.

Jeanne Tustian, of Bradley Hills Presbyterian Church in Bethesda, joined Cutler outside the embassy on Sunday and recalled being a teenager in the 1950s learning about the struggle Jewish refugees faced while seeking asylum during World War II.

“They were turned away from this country,” she said. “That horrified me. It left an indelible mark on my conscience — how could this country do that? I just felt I had to do something to stop another genocide.”
The United States first took action against Sudan in 1997 when President Bill Clinton imposed a comprehensive trade embargo, according to the Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control.

Following a U.N. Security Council Resolution in 2005 condemning the human rights violations in Darfur, President George W. Bush issued an executive order “blocking the property of certain persons in connection with the conflict in Darfur.”

President Barack Obama, who stumped on the issue during his 2008 election campaign, recognized the Republic of South Sudan, which gained independence in 2011 and was exempted from certain aspects of the Sudanese sanctions regulations.

More recently, 120 members of Congress signed a letter to Obama in May asking him “to enhance the current sanctions regime so that [it] is focused to impact the calculations of the Sudanese regime’s top-level officials, by targeting top level officials, financial institutions and other facilitators of the conflict.”

Outside the embassy, Cutler and Tustian were joined by David Allbaugh, of John Calvin Presbyterian Church in Annandale.

“It may take a few years but it is something that has to be done,” he said, referring to the messages on their signs. “One of the things that my dad taught me is never be silent.”

When Cutler began advocating for peace in Darfur, she hoped religious organizations around Washington would choose a day of the month to protest, eventually creating constant demonstrations. She admits that has yet to happen.

At the end of each hourlong protest, the group holds hands and forms a circle. Each person says a short prayer asking for peace in Darfur, before saying, in unison, “Amen.”

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