OURE CASSONI REFUGEE CAMP, Chad (Reuters) - Actress Mia Farrow and fellow campaigners have begun an Olympic-style torch relay through countries that have suffered genocide to press China to help end abuses in the Darfur region of its ally Sudan.
Farrow, a goodwill ambassador for U.N. Children’s Fund UNICEF and outspoken critic of abuses in western Sudan, lit a torch just across the border in Chad almost exactly a year before the Beijing Olympics are due to open on August 8, 2008.
“This flame represents and honors all those who have been lost, and all those who still suffer,” said Farrow as she held the symbolic torch in Oure Cassoni refugee camp, 3 miles from Chad’s border with Sudan.
“This flame celebrates the courage of those who survived and represents the hope we all share for an end to the violence, and a safe return home,” she said.
During a fierce rain and dust storm which engulfed the camp, the actress then wrapped up the ceremony by symbolically leading away a refugee boy into the distance, still holding the torch high in her other hand, to cheers from fellow activists.
Human rights campaigners accuse Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir’s government of supporting abuses by his armed forces and allied Arab militia known as the “Janjaweed” and accuse China, Sudan’s most powerful ally and top oil customer, of shielding Khartoum from international action.
Washington brands Darfur’s war genocide. International experts estimate 200,000 people have died in Darfur, though Sudan puts the toll much lower at about 9,000.
China hopes the Olympics will showcase its growing industrial and economic might, and campaigners trying to exert pressure on Beijing over alleged human rights abuses by it or its allies have seized on the Games as a publicity opportunity.
Critics who accuse China of widespread human rights violations at home against groups such as outlawed Falun Gong spiritual group began a rival torch relay in Athens, on Friday, the same day Farrow lit the Darfur torch in Chad.
Organizers requested details of the controversial ceremony in Chad be published only after they had left for Rwanda, where an estimated 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were slaughtered in a 1994 genocide.
“The Olympic torch travels the world before the games to represent peace and brotherhood. We are doing this torch ... to also represent peace and brotherhood for the people of Darfur,” Jill Savitt, of Organizers Dream for Darfur, told reporters.
Ruth Messinger, president of the American Jewish World Service, and Ira Newble, an NBA basketball player with the Cleveland Cavaliers, also took part in last week’s ceremony.
Eastern Chad is home to 230,000 Darfuri refugees as well as 170,000 more Chadian civilians forced from their homes by inter-ethnic attacks similar to those which have plagued neighboring Darfur.
The Dream for Darfur torch is due to continue to visit genocide sites in Rwanda, Armenia, Bosnia, Germany and Cambodia as well as touring nearly two dozen cities across the United States ahead of next year’s Olympics.