Concerned that the eyes of the world are losing focus on the genocide in Darfur, a group of activists with broad ties to New Jersey’s Jewish community met Jan. 7 with a leading congressional champion of their cause.
Eight representatives of the NJ Responds to the Crisis in Darfur Coalition gathered in the Newark conference room of Rep. Donald Payne (D-Dist. 10), chair of the House Subcommittee on Africa and Global Health.
Like New Jersey’s Rep. Christopher Smith (R-Dist. 2) and Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ). Payne has been deeply committed to ending the rampant violence by the Sudanese government’s Janjaweed militias targeting the country’s Darfur region. The militias have killed some 400,000 Darfurians and turned some 2.5 million others into refugees.
“But people don’t hear about it anymore,” said Melanie Roth Gorelick, associate director of United Jewish Communities of MetroWest NJ’s Community Relations Committee.
Gorelick was part of the delegation that included Ferne Hassan, assistant director at American Jewish Committee’s Metro New Jersey Area, and representatives of local organizations that have led the campaign to boost assistance for Darfur. Gorelick also represents the Jewish Community Relations Councils of Central and Northern New Jersey.
The advocates are pressing for greater clarity from the Obama administration about its next steps in addressing the situation. Advocates are concerned about national elections scheduled for April, a test for Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir.
“We want to make sure that the U.S. is involved in ensuring free and fair elections and the Sudanese are not just electing an indicted war criminal back into power,” Gorelick told NJ Jewish News after the meeting. “It is critical that the Obama administration report on their strategy before the elections and that everything is being done to ensure free and fair elections.”
Getting back up to speed after the congressional holiday recess, Payne promised those at the meeting he would look further into developments in Darfur and the Obama administration’s handling of the tense situation there.
“The bottom line is this: the annihilation of a people,” said Blanche Foster, executive director of the Darfur Rehabilitation Project. “That is what is going on. It doesn’t matter whether you see it in huge numbers or whether it is done slowly. The Sudanese government wants the people of Darfur to be destroyed.”
“It continues on a daily basis,” said Yahya Osman, president of the Newark-based DRP.
Beyond the wholesale rape and murder that has been going on for nearly seven years, other issues are troubling the activists.
Payne pointed out that the Sudanese government is shipping weapons to militias in southern Sudan “to destabilize the south. There is a tremendous number of weapons, and most of them are coming from China,” he said.
Noting that Bashir has been charged with genocide and crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court, AJC’s Hassan asked if the Sudanese leader’s government will be compelled “to stand up and say, ‘OK. I have to answer to the will of the people?’”
“That remains to be seen,” Payne responded. “You cannot deal with what-ifs.”
“The Janjaweed have settled in Darfurian villages so there is a very small amount of land for the villagers surrounded by Janjaweed, so these people can be killed,” Osman told Payne.
“There is a lot of concern about turning people out into a wilderness where there is no way to sustain life because their own lands have been given away,” added Gloria Crist, cofounder of Essex County Coalition on Darfur.
“You are not supposed to relocate [people from] or occupy the land that belongs to other people,” Payne said. “There must be a plan for the people to return to their villages. It is a big order, but the only way for justice to be served is to allow people to go back to their villages. The people who are occupying their property unlawfully have to be removed.”
However, he cautioned, “people shouldn’t be sent back to places where they are going to be in harm’s way — that’s for sure.”
Janet Nelson, cochair of the coalition, was critical of General Scott Gration, the retired Air Force officer who serves as President Obama’s special envoy in Sudan.
Nelson said Gration, a resident of Nutley and a graduate of Rutgers University, has advocated “incredible appeasement” of the Sudanese government.
“That contrasts sharply with the policy pressed by Susan Rice, United States ambassador to the United Nations,” she told NJJN.
“Dr. Rice came out of the Clinton administration and was a very strong advocate for engagement in Rwanda,” said Nelson. “It was our understanding that Obama appointed her because of her strong stance on genocide. On the other hand, the advocacy community in the United States is up in arms about Gration’s position with Sudan.”
But Gorelick takes a different view of the envoy.
“I don’t want to put him down,” she said. “I met him and he seemed very open. He understands how things happen in Africa. He believes in sanctions, but he doesn’t believe that all the sanctions we’ve advocated are good. He hasn’t made himself visible enough for us to like or not like him.”