Symbolic Torch Relay Aims to Shine Light on China, Darfur and Death

By Nora Boustany
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Lighting a torch at historic sites of genocide, a group of activists, actors and athletes is hoping to press China, as host of the 2008 Olympic Games, to use its influence with the government in Khartoum to stop the killing and displacement of civilians in the Darfur region of western Sudan.

"We actually think it is inconsistent for an Olympic host to be complicit in an ongoing genocide," said Jill Savitt, a human rights activist who conceived of the "Olympic Dream for Darfur" campaign.

The symbolic torch relay began Aug. 8, two miles from Darfur's border with eastern Chad, the same day the official Olympic torch relay began in Athens. The activists kept the Darfur relay secret to avoid problems in the Darfur border area.

The group is scheduled to light a flame this morning in the Rwandan capital, Kigali, and to march along the route where, in 1994, about 2,500 Tutsis were massacred between a high school and a rubbish dump.

The group is being led by actress Mia Farrow and, besides Savitt, includes basketball player Ira Newble of the Cleveland Cavaliers; Eric Reeves, a Smith College professor and Sudan expert; and Ruth Messinger, president of the American Jewish World Service.

Human rights campaigners accuse Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir's government of abetting and financing abuses by its armed forces and an allied Arab militia, the Janjaweed, and they accuse China of shielding Khartoum from international sanctions. China is a major purchaser of Sudanese oil.

"By lighting a flame on the Darfur border, we inject hope across eastern Chad and now Rwanda," Farrow said. "If we have the support of those communities who should know better, we will get the strength and inspiration to protect those places."

Speaking by telephone from Kigali yesterday, Farrow described the Darfurian refugees she met last week in Chad, saying, "They are grieving. One lifetime is not enough time to recover. Their tarps are old and leaking. People there told us they long to go home. They listen to the BBC twice a day. Some have had their college education severed, yet they want what we want. Their dreams have been put on hold and their hopes extinguished."

"China has unrivaled leverage with oil revenue it brings into Sudan and arms sales, so it can play a diplomatic role other than Khartoum's protector," Savitt, the activist, said yesterday by telephone from Kigali. "China will be sensitive to pressure and we want to say, 'China, please bring the Olympic dream to Darfur.' "

Farrow said she had received thousands of e-mails from China with eloquent appeals for an end to the suffering of Darfurians. One individual, signing his e-mail as "China's Everyman," expressed solidarity with Darfurians and said the Chinese wanted their government to lead the way in addressing the crisis.

The group is also coordinating a torch relay in 25 U.S. states from September through December.

Savitt said that when she met with China's ambassador to Washington last June, he was concerned the campaign would lead to a boycott of the Beijing Olympics. She made it clear to Ambassador Zhou Wenzhong that a boycott was not the group's aim, she said.

"Olympic Dream for Darfur is not a boycott campaign, nor does it support a boycott of the Olympics," said a press release put out by the organizers. "Our campaign believes that the sports arena is the best forum for countries to 'do battle.' " Organizers say they hope the torch campaign will galvanize a global anti-genocide movement.

From Africa, some of the activists will take the torch to Armenia, Bosnia, Germany and Cambodia.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company