At Kean University on Oct. 16, for the first time in New Jersey and possibly anywhere in the country, according to the organizers, a conference on Darfur was addressed by a panel of Darfuris.
The refugees spoke of tragedy, terror, and deprivation, and of a situation so complex, only a concerted international effort stands any chance of bringing about peace.
During the lunch break, they huddled in intense conversation with retired General Scott Gration, the Obama administration’s special envoy to Sudan, who spoke at the afternoon session. Later, behind the scenes, they met with Gration and Rep. Donald Payne (D-Dist 10), a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and chair of the Subcommittee on Africa and Global Health, and high level panelists from Darfur advocacy organizations in Washington, DC.
Participants at the daylong event, sponsored by the New Jersey Coalition Responds to the Crisis in Darfur and the Human Rights Institute at Kean, were given a rare preview of government policy from Gration. On Oct. 19, the Obama administration announced a series of strategic changes in its approach to Sudan, emphasizing measures intended to improve relations with Khartoum while expecting progress on refugees and a strengthened peace process between north and south Sudan.
The coalition hosted the conference in order to spur exactly that kind of dialogue and trigger forward momentum, according to Melanie Roth Gorelick, associate director of the Community Relations Committee of United Communities of MetroWest NJ, one of its primary organizers. The CRC, along with the American Jewish Committee, is among a number of Jewish organizations that are members of the coalition.
“One of our goals was to provide an opportunity for leaders to meet and get down to business,” said Gorelick. “It was an invaluable platform.”
At the afternoon session on international strategies for ending the violence, Gration was joined by Karen Odaba Mosoti, the head of the International Criminal Court’s liaison office to the UN.
Gration, a Nutley resident and Rutgers alumnus, cited “tremendous progress” in recent months. He characterized the new U.S. strategy as “verify, then trust,” reversing the Reagan-era approach. He showed the audience a CIA-generated chart showing that deaths in Darfur declined substantially from the peak 2003-05 years.
At the same time, he said, refugees are living in conditions that are “unacceptable.”
He said there was still a need for sanctions, but sanctions that are “getting in the way of the people we’re trying to help” should be reevaluated.
Gration said he has made five trips to Darfur and met with refugees, nongovernmental organizations, and UNAMID, the UN-authorized body charged with supporting the implementation of the Darfur Peace Agreement and protecting UN personnel and civilians. Gration described meeting women in refugee camps who “proudly” showed him their solar cookers, which enable them to cook without having to leave the relative safety of the camps to gather firewood. New Jersey has adopted the Oure Cassoni refugee camp; the coalition runs a project to provide women there with solar cookers (see www.njdarfur.org for details).
Other coalition members include the NJ Area American Jewish Committee, the NJ Region of the Anti-Defamation League, the NJ Commission on Holocaust Education, the NJ Region of the Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter Ring, and numerous other academic, religious, and community organizations.
Joyce Reilly of the NJ Coalition, a co-convener of the event, described what has been happening in Darfur as “the first and hopefully the only genocide of the 21st century.” She said, “It is time to act” to bring about peace there.
The day’s first panel covered the historic and geopolitical dimensions of the conflict.
The panelists’ outlook was grim. Dr. Jay Spaulding, a social historian at Kean, described the deep the divisions in Sudan. Dr. Charles Boateng, professor of political science at Kean, said too many competing countries are interfering with events in Darfur for their own benefit, but international intervention is essential.
Dr. Sherri McFarland of the National Defense Intelligence College added a further note of concern, pointing out that Iran has escalated the arms build-up in the country and has established weapons factories. With help from the Khartoum government, it has been extracting uranium there, she said.
When it was their turn, the Darfuri panelists expressed their gratitude for American help and concern and asked for continuing help for their people — both politically and financially. On the panel were: Abdelbagy Abushanab, past president of the Darfur Rehabilitation Project; Yahya Osman, current vice president; Adeeb Yousif, chair of the Darfur Reconciliation and Development Organization, and Awadia Niam, of the Darfur People’s Association.
Speaking at the final session, Sam Bell, executive director of Genocide Intervention Network, said the United States has major influence on the Sudanese government and its people, but American activists should focus efforts on supporting Darfuris working for peace in their country.
Ian Schwab, associate director of advocacy with the American Jewish World Service, said the activists win the domestic fights — on divestment and the UN’s role, for example — but they still don’t achieve the desired outcome. “Right now our advocacy needs to be twice as loud so that this issue will remain at the top of the agenda,” he said.
Robert Lawrence, director of government relations with the Save Darfur Coalition, described the Darfur movement as the most successful mobilization effort in U.S. history not related to military or security issues. To keep the issue high on the agenda, he said, American activists need to battle inaction and indifference and use their influence tactfully and strategically.