Washington Report on Middle East Affairs
May 31, 2000 | Kutty, Faisal
Toronto police closed off a number of streets as a procession of more than 2,000 protesters marched through the downtown core on March 25 to bring attention to the plight of Chechen civilians. The protesters made their way along a 1.5-kilometer stretch from Nathan Phillips Square to Queen’s Park, the seat of the Provincial Legislature.
The protest, organized by the Toronto Chechnya Taskforce (www.chechnyataskforce.com), was the largest organized by the community since a rally in favor of Bosnians in the early 1990s that attracted about 4,000.
The media were out in full force but afterward many participants expressed dissatisfaction about the lack of any serious coverage.
Attendance at the rally was also contested. “As usual, the figures were underestimated by the media and police,” charged Imran Yousuf, one of the organizers. The estimates ranged from 400 to over 2,000.
When approached by the Washington Report at the peak of the rally, the police put the figure at 400 to 420. But according to Yousuf, the organizers collected more than 1,130 petition letters from the marchers.
“Not everyone signed the petition, there were two other petitions circulating in the crowd and many people joined and left at different stages of the march,” said Yousuf. “So if all this is taken into consideration, we believe that the turnout was well above 2,000, including children.”
The marchers hoped to pressure Canadian authorities to call on the Russians to stop their onslaught. The Task Force says this is only consistent with Canada’s humanitarian reputation. To date a number of opposition members of Parliament have raised the issue in Ottawa but have not gotten very far with the goverment. Moreover, the media have been silent on opposition efforts to raise the issue.
Thousands have been killed and more than 200,000 have been rendered internally displaced in the recent wave of fighting. Human Rights Watch, the Council of Europe and Physicians for Human Rights, among others, have tried to bring attention to war crimes, summary executions of civilians and other violations of international law carried out by Russian troops. “Despite reports from independent human rights groups, the world community, including Canada, has remained largely silent,” said Anwaar Syed, spokesperson for the Task Force and executive director of the Canadian Muslim Civil Liberties Association (CMCLA).
As the marchers streamed onto the grounds of Queen’s Park, master of ceremonies Abdul Rahman Malik pumped them up with his dynamic call to keep the plight of the Chechens in the forefront of public attention. Dawud Warnsby-Ali, a local activist and internationally recognized songwriter, told the crowd that Canada is a country of peace and should call for an end to the attack on the Chechens.
He captivated the audience with a rendition of one of his songs, “The Letter,” (about a Chechen child’s experience) from the Soundvision album by the same name. Imam Mohamed Khattab and Imam Shabbir Ali, both prominent members of the community, echoed his sentiments and motivated the gathering to keep up the pressure to ensure that justice and dignity is brought to the suffering.
Solange Waithe, who is head of a Chechnya awareness project, provided some historical background on the conflict and moved many with a demonstration of physical displacement. A recently arrived Chechen whose family is still in the war zone crowned the roster of speakers. He told the people he was very moved, and thanked the multi-ethnic crowd for coming out to support the cause.
The protest was endorsed and sponsored by the following organizations: Muslim Students Association of Canada and U.S., Jami Mosque, TARIC Mosque, Islamic Foundation of Toronto, International Muslims Organization, the Canadian Islamic Congress, the Canadian-Muslim Civil Liberties Association, Islamic Institute of Toronto, Islamic Society of North America, Islamic Circle of North America, Islamic Society of Toronto, Islamic Community Center of Ontario, and Human Concern International, as well as a number of other mosques and organizations in and around the city.