Many refugees are living in Pittsburgh from Africa's largest nation, Sudan, due to strife in their homeland. When the country's ambassador, Abdel Bagi Kabeir, came to speak at the University of Pittsburgh on May 21, a few made it their business to attend.
Among them was Robert Lino, a Pitt information science major who came here three years ago from Juba, in the southern part of Sudan, where his family still lives. Given Kabeir's employment with a government Lino believes has been killing innocent Sudanese, Lino didn't expect Kabeir would be totally honest.
Kabeir had been invited to Pitt by a local Muslim group, the Sankore Institute of Islamic African Studies, and by Pitt's Muslim Student Association.
Lino spoke with Kabeir before his speech. That brief conversation gave Lino confidence, he said, because Kabeir said he had his own thoughts apart from the government line.
"But that's not how it turned out to be," said Lino, among a dozen who protested Kabeir before he even made it to the lectern.
In Sudan, "the situation hasn't gone backward, it's going forward," Kabeir told the audience of a hundred.
Hoping to end a 21-year civil war, the predominantly Arab and Muslim Sudanese government in Khartoum began reaching agreement with the Sudan People's Liberation Front, led by Christian and indigenous African religious tribes, in May 2004. The Dec. 31 agreement created revenue sharing from Sudan's rich oil production and released Southern Sudan from the application of Islamic law.
"There was no audience, no news reports, no demonstrations, no nothing about our peace agreement," said Kabeir.
Instead, the growing crisis in Darfur, in the Sudan's western region, drew press attention because tens of thousands have been killed and millions displaced, mainly by outlaw militias like the notorious Janjaweed. But that hasn't been the chief cause of death there, Kabeir contended. Famine is due to decades of drought and desertification, African farmers have been losing more and more land while nomadic herders, normally Arab, have become more aggressive in their grazing, seizing what scarce food exists.
Kabeir said there was no ethnic cleansing by the Sudanese government, calling the notion of Arab-versus-African conflict a "myth."
Lino was not impressed.
"He came and lied, blankly," Lino said. "He tried to make it look like Darfur was just a tribal war. If it is a tribal war, then how come militias were able to carry grenade launchers and how can tribes acquire things like helicopters that can gun down an entire village?"
"I don't think the conference solved any good purpose for Sudanese refugees [or] for victims of genocide," said Peter Okema, coordinator of Africa Peace Education in Pittsburgh. "I think Mr. Kabeir avoided taking responsibility of the Sudanese government killing people under the guise of the Janjaweed."