When soldiers on horseback rode into his tiny home village in Darfur, Western Sudan, Mohammed Yahya lost 21 family members. That was at the beginning of the genocide that is continuing to kill thousands of Africans and has forced more than 2 million people into refugee camps.
Yahya was in Cairo, studying philosophy at Alzahar University, when he learned about the attack on his village. He learned that two of his grandparents had been burned alive, when the Janjaweed militia set fire to their hut. He heard that women in his family had been raped and that his parents, brothers and sisters had fled and were now missing.
"It is a horrible tragedy that I experienced and a very difficult time for me," Yahya said. "So when this happened, I began to talk to everyone about it and I've been working to help stop this killing."
The conflict began in 2003 after years of tension over land and water rights between nomadic Arabs and local farmers. Rebel groups attacked government targets, saying the region was being neglected by Khartoum and Arabs were being favored over Black Africans. But conflict between the rebels, Arab "Janjaweed" militias and government forces soon turned into attacks on defenseless civilian farmers. International agencies say the government has supported the Janjaweed in what amounts to ethnic cleansing.
According to the international advocacy group Human Rights Watch, "The Sudanese government and the Arab "Janjaweed" militias it arms and supports have committed numerous attacks on the civilian populations of the African Fur, Masalit and Zaghawa ethnic groups. Government forces oversaw and directly participated in massacres, summary executions of civilians— including women and children—burnings of towns and villages, and the forcible depopulation of wide swathes of land long inhabited by the Fur, Masalit and Zaghawa."
Under international pressure to act, the Sudanese government has denied supporting the Janjaweed, but has not acted to disarm the militias.
"I think some pressure needs to go on our Congressional delegates because they are the people who can influence the administration," said Rev. Alcena Boozer, Rector of St. Phillip the Deacon Episcopal Church. "I think the United States could do a lot more. In my opinion there has been a lot of lip service, but we don't see any pressure on countries who are not upholding their obligation to be a force for peace in the world."
Yahya will be in Portland this week, speaking at several events organized to draw attention to the continuing genocide and to build support for efforts to bring peace to Sudan. Organized by Dream For Darfur, working with a coalition of activists, students and faith groups, the events will run from Nov. 7 through Nov. 11.
Lincoln High School Student Anti-Genocide Coalition and Resolutions Northwest both will host day-long events for middle and high school students. At Camp Darfur, Nov 7 at Lincoln High School, students will be able to talk to genocide survivors from Darfur, Rwanda, the Holocaust, Armenia and Cambodia. Resolution Northwest's Peacemakers Conference for middle and high school students, held in the Oregon Convention center Nov. 8, will offer three workshops focused on how to build peace in Darfur.
Other events are open to the public: a screening of Darfur Now, a documentary about the genocide and what activists are doing to end it, Nov 8; and an Interfaith Service Nov. 11, followed by a candlelight vigil and an Olympic torch passing ceremony, featuring genocide survivors, including Yahya.
Why an Olympic torch ceremony? Katie-Jay Scott of Portland Coalition for Genocide Awareness, said the Dream For Darfur campaign aims to put pressure on China, host of next year's Olympic Games.
China buys 60 - 70 percent of the Sudan's oil, is heavily invested in the country and has refused to condemn the government's failure to rein in the militia's carrying out the atrocities.
"China does not have the best human rights record, but they want to show the world how different they are now," Scott said. "Their slogan for the games is One World, One Dream and they don't want the games to be tarnished. Well, we want to extend that dream to Darfur, and the more pressure we put on them, the more likely they are to take an active role. If China were to play the economic card, it could pressurize the Sudanese government to change what they are doing."
Scott, and other organizers of the Portland events, say raising awareness about China's role in Sudan, may prompt the Chinese government to change its policy.
"People can do a lot to help," Yahya said. "They can speak out, write letters, petition the United Nations or call people with influence."
In the United States for the last five years, Yahya had lost contact with his family until last year, he learned his mother was still alive, a refugee in Egypt.
"I only learned she was safe last May," he said. "As for my father – I still don't know anything."
What he does know is that his home no longer exists.
"The whole area was destroyed," he said. "There is no way for me to go back."