The humanitarian crisis in the Darfur region of Sudan, where the conflict between the government and rebel groups has resulted in up to 300,000 deaths since 2003, has gotten even worse this year. In March, the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir for crimes against humanity. He retaliated by kicking 13 international humanitarian organizations out of the country leaving the people with limited relief, food, and medical care. Congressman Donald M. Payne, chairman of the House Subcommittee on Africa and Global Health, has long been on the frontlines of the Darfur issue. To keep attention on the crisis, he and other members of the Congressional Black Caucus launched the "Fast for Life" campaign, which has lawmakers fasting for at least one day, until Congress adjourns in August. Payne talked to ESSENCE.com about the meaning behind the fast, what he thinks President Obama's team must do to end the conflict in Darfur, and how we can be a part of the solution.
ESSENCE.COM: Is fasting really the most meaningful way to help stop the crisis in Darfur?
CONGRESSMAN DONALD PAYNE: It's a reminder for the individual that, one, we have to continually be aware of what's going on. It's not uncommon that when issues get off the front pages, people forget about them. So we've had arrests at the Sudanese embassy, letter writing campaigns and rallies as tactics to keep attention on Darfur. This fast is another technique to draw attention to it. Secondly, when you physically refrain from eating for even a day, you can feel the difference. We want people to not only be mindful, but also physically feel the pain of those who don't have basic food or water.
ESSENCE.COM: You've called for the President to take bolder action in Darfur, and have particularly stressed keeping economic sanctions there. Has he indicated that he's going to lift the sanctions?
PAYNE: We didn't have an indication that he was going to, but in a lot of instances an administration comes in and they want to try another way. So, preemptively, we wanted to say we hope that's not on the table because we don't believe that Sudan has gone in any different direction and therefore it's not warranted. We've asked for a meeting with the special envoy, which will occur next week. We want a report with his assessment.
ESSENCE.COM: So what exactly would you like for President Obama to do?
PAYNE: Keep the pressure on the Sudanese government to come up with a plan for ending the conflict in Darfur and have a peace accord. We also need to know when the humanitarian groups will be able to fully return. And as for the several million people living in refugee camps, what will the government do to restore their property so they can go back home?
ESSENCE.COM: But is Sudanese President al-Bashir really someone who can be reasoned with to create such a plan?
PAYNE: I think we have to try additional methods. We have to tell the Chinese that they have to put pressure on him, since they have influence with the government as an investor in the oil sector. He is a monster, and the only way that Al-Bashir will give in is if there's extreme pressure. Dr. John Garang, who was a leader in Sudan, said the government and Bashir were "too deformed to be reformed." I agree with his statement.
ESSENCE.COM: At the Congressional Black Caucus press conference last month, activist Marcia Dyson quite forcefully said that African-Americans have been silent on this issue and haven't gotten involved. What can we do?
PAYNE: I would like to see African-American churches get more involved. Also, years ago the NAACP took this up as a major issue, but I'd like to see more. When national organizations—like the National Baptist Convention, the NAACP, 100 Black Men of America, and some of the fraternities and sororities—meet, they should discuss resolutions for Darfur. One of the reasons for resolutions is to let more people know what's going on. Students in college are pretty active in this area and have written letters, [sewed] quilts and all kinds of things to keep this issue in front of their peers, so we have to continue to take on initiatives of that nature as well.