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From Somerville, a sharp eye on Darfur

Mike Capuano is the first to admit he came into Congress without much knowledge of, or appetite for, foreign policy issues. ''I never pretended it was my strong suit. It still is not," he says.

But the former Somerville mayor, who was elected to the House of Representatives in 1998 on a Democratic bread-and-butter platform focused on domestic issues, has emerged as one of the leading congressional voices urging greater action to stop the genocide in the Darfur region of Sudan.

For Capuano, who spoke at last month's rally in Washington organized by the Save Darfur Coalition, the road to antigenocide activism was not that different from those that often prompted him to take action in Somerville City Hall: Someone with a problem came to see him.

''I didn't find the issue," he says. ''It found me." Four years ago, members of the American Anti-Slavery Group, a Boston-based organization working to raise awareness of the practice of slavery in southern Sudan, came to meet with Capuano. ''Like almost everybody I know, I didn't know there was any [modern-day] slavery," he says. He learned of horrors being inflicted by the Arab-led Sudanese government against Africans in the southern part of the country from a former Sudanese slave, who was part of the group that came to his Cambridge office.

''Hearing about it is one thing," he says. ''Seeing it face-to-face is another."

The experience led him to learn more about the troubled region, and it has driven him to take a leading role in trying to end the horrors in Darfur, in western Sudan, where at least 200,000 members of African tribal groups have been killed and more than 2 million displaced since 2003 in a reign of terror carried out by Arab militias operating with tacit government support.

Capuano authored a 2003 House resolution condemning slavery in Sudan, and last year he cofounded the Congressional Caucus on Sudan. In March, an amendment he sponsored to boost funding of African Union peacekeeping efforts in Sudan by $50 million was approved by the House.

''To his credit, Mike was out there long before anybody else was," says Dr. Gloria White-Hammond, a Boston physician and leader of the antislavery movement and the effort to end the Darfur genocide.

A year ago, Capuano endorsed the deployment of US troops to halt the killings, if necessary. ''I'm not sure that a year ago, I was in the same place," says White-Hammond, who now says she would support such action if other efforts fail.

The 7,000 African Union troops currently deployed to protect civilians are badly outgunned by the militias ravaging the Darfur region, says White-Hammond, who is chairwoman of the Million Voices for Darfur campaign, an effort to collect 1 million postcards from Americans calling on the administration to support a stronger multinational force in Darfur.

''In a perfect world, I wouldn't want US troops on the ground," says Capuano. ''But if the choice is US troops versus nobody, nobody is not acceptable."

''We're seeing the first genocide of this century," says White-Hammond. ''And we're hoping if we do this right, it will be the last. If we can stop the genocide in Darfur, that will be a change in the way the world has always responded to genocide, which is see no evil, speak no evil, hear no evil, do no good."

''This is an unarmed population being massacred," says Capuano. ''I don't pretend I can stop it. But I really do believe the nonsense we were told when we were kids: If you see something bad happening, do what you can to stop it."

Michael Jonas can be reached at

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