Craig Walzer / Voice of Witness – 2011-05-09 20:15:53
We Shall See with Our Own Eyes
Out of Exile: The Abducted and Displaced People of Sudan
Craig Walzer / Voice of Witness
After more than a century of colonial rule, the country of Sudan declared independence on January 1, 1956. Sudan is geographically the largest country in Africa, and nearly twice the size of Alaska. The north of Sudan is the Sahara desert and the Nile valley. The west is in the heart of the Sahel savanna. The east runs from semiarid land over mountains to the coast of the Red Sea.
In the center are fertile clay plains that stretch from the Nuba Mountains to the Ethiopian highlands. The south braces the Nile and covers jungles, plains, and a swamp the size of Belgium before meeting the Kenyan desert not far from the ridge of the Great Rift Valley.
The peoples of Sudan speak 134 different languages — or more than 400 if one counts distinct dialects. The population is divided into 19 ethnic groups, with 597 subgroups. While Islam dominates the North and Christianity the South, indigenous religions and their legacies still pervade and shade the ritual practices of nearly every ethnic subgroup.
The country of forty million shares no single common language, religion, skin color, economic agenda, cultural history, or political consensus. A light-skinned Arabic-speaking Muslim from the northern railroad hub of Atbara is in most ways a stranger (or worse, a media caricature) to a Christian Dinka from a pastoral village whose skin tone is the deepest black. Within Sudan’s borders, the diversity is at once mesmerizing and terrifying.
Here is why it is terrifying:
Sudan’s first civil war, between the North and South, lasted seventeen years, from 1955 to 1972. Open war between North and South reignited in 1983 and lasted until 2005.
The people and culture of the Nuba Mountains were nearly eradicated in the crossfire of a military campaign by the North’s Army that, in the words of scholar Alex de Waal, “was genocidal in intent and at one point appeared to be on the brink of success.” It is estimated that thousands were abducted into slavery during the height of the fighting, and even more were systematically raped as a tactic of war.
In 1998, a combination of drought, war, and obstruction of humanitarian aid led to a famine in South Sudan that killed more than seventy thousand people.
Low-level conflict in East Sudan began in the 1990s as the Beja Congress fought for a share in governmental power; a 2006 peace agreement between Khartoum and the Eastern Front currently stands on shaky ground.
From approximately 1992 to 1996, Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda posted their headquarters in Sudan at the invitation of the Islamist political leader Hassan al-Turabi. The current Darfur conflict has raged since 2003, and thereâ€™s no end in sight. In 2004, the United Nations labeled Darfur the world’s “worst humanitarian crisis.”
The death toll from these conflicts is over three million. Perhaps eight million Sudanese have been forced to flee their homes at one time or another because of war.
Malnourishment, sexual violence, political oppression, and disease pervade more quietly. All told, itâ€™s been enough to keep Sudan at the top of Foreign Policy’s Failed States Index, as the country narrowly edged out Iraq, Somalia, and Zimbabwe in 2007 to retain its spot.
One could argue that during the brief life of the modern Sudanese state, the thread shared by the countryâ€™s myriad peoples is a living memory of violence.
This book is based on that tragic common thread. The unifying characteristic of the narrators in this book is forced displacement. Each person has been forced, by violence or the threat of violence, by ideological oppression, or by extreme economic injustice to leave his or her home. These displaced persons are at once the living testimony to their young country’s sorry bond of violence and a critical human resource for rebuilding and reconciliation when that day comes.
The world doesn’t really know what to make of Sudan. We hear news reports of rebels fighting central commands, of warring factions breaking and turning, of starving children with flies in their eyes. We have Google Earth’s satellite photos of Darfur’s scorched earth. We have legal definitions of genocide and crimes against humanity. We have formal condemnations by the United Nations. We have a multibillion dollar humanitarian aid industry slowing the burn. We have prosecutors seeking justice, if not peace, through indictments by the International Criminal Court. But we do not take forceful action to change the existing order of Sudan.
Perhaps it is wise not to intervene. Perhaps it is an excuse and the reason why so many feel free to condemn with such volume: the knowledge that the world will never go so far as to actually put ourselves on the line for this cause. Nor do we have to. Who will hold us accountable? We hear the sheer numbers, the thousands, the hundreds of thousands, the millions, and after wincing, we can safely categorize these stories under the rubrics of tribal conflict or African suffering.
Or, like thousands are doing right now, we can plunge in head first and scratch and claw against the currents of bureaucratic inertia, scarce available resources, and tepid political will.
Or, resigned, we can back away and call ourselves prudent, reciting the catalog of interventions that have resulted in more harm than good. Harvard professor Samantha Power has often recounted that at the height of the debates over Darfur at the United Nations Security Council, Sudanese diplomats wandered the halls whispering warnings to their colleagues on the council: “If you like Iraq, you’ll love Darfur.”
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The modern law pertaining to refugees was conceived in the wake of World War I and was truly born in 1951, with the ratification of the UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. Currently 147 countries are signatories to the convention or its ancillary document, the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees. A refugee is, by the convention’s definition:
A person who owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.
Millions of lives have been protected under the current international regime of refugee protection. There have been successes brought about through the grace and tenacity of so many who have worked so hard. Yet a glance at global context shows another harsh truth: There are thirty-two million recognized refugees in the world according to the official count of the United Nations, and though we have no official tally of the number of people forcibly displaced within their own countries’ borders, there is no question that that number is in the tens of millions and maybe higher still.
It is a truth that the stories in this book will confirm: For all our incantations of the “inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family,” the world does not adequately care for those without a country.
More than half a century ago, the scholar and World War II refugee Hannah Arendt charged that “the concept of the Rights of man, based on the supposed existence of a human being as such, collapsed in ruins as soon as those who professed it found themselves for the first time before men who had truly lost every other specific quality and connection except for the mere fact of being humans.”
Today, we still have yet to reach robust consensus on this, the purest of cases, those who ask for our consideration not as a citizen of a great country or as an owner of property, not with a paper trail or resources to barter, but merely as humans.
The ongoing stalemate strikes at a central question of the New World Order. Two traditionally sacred values clash. One is the fundamental diplomatic principle of a nation’s sovereignty. The other is the mere humanâ€™s right — as stated in the United Nations Declaration — to “life, liberty, and the security of person.”
An Interview with a Refugee in Kenya
In the course of compiling this book, Out of Exile: The Abducted and Displaced People of Sudan, only one person chose to cut off her interview before we had finished. A woman named Mary welcomed us into her corrugated-iron hut in the slums of Kawangware, on the outskirts of Nairobi, Kenya, in the summer of 2007. She made space for us to sit on her bed, her only piece of furniture. She swept away the muddy water streaming across the floor. She introduced us to her son, maybe six or seven years old, wearing a faded Green Bay Packers jersey.
If you had to describe the story of your life, what is the five-minute story of your life?
Even if I tell you my life, what will you do about it?
What we are doing with this is making a book. The idea is to educate people about the situation of the people of Sudan.
I have been asked these questions before and nobody has come to our help. We have never been helped. They say money will go to building schools and hospitals. We have been told about this all the time, and nothing ever happens.
I guess I can’t give you evidence, but I can tell you that I am coming from a faraway place, and there are many of us who think this is very important and are trying to help. I understand why you are skeptical, because it’s very difficult here, and nobody has been helping you, but weâ€™re trying to change that. Weâ€™re trying to help.
I have been living this bad life, and many people come and say they will do everything, and nobody has been doing it. And not only are many people in Sudan living in these conditions, but all these people come here, and nothing has been happening for all this time.
Well, I will not lie to you. I can’t promise you everything, because the situation is very bad, and there is so much to do. We will not do everything, and we cannot fix everything, but we are just trying to do something small, because it’s a start.
We will not believe now. Until we can see with our own eyes in Sudan, maybe that’s when we shall believe that you people are helping us in Sudan.
What would you like to see? What would make you believe?
We would like to see that Sudan is in peace, and that Sudan is more like other countries. Thatâ€™s when we will believe that changes have come to Sudan.
How long do you think that will take?
I donâ€™t know. I don’t want to live in Kenya any longer. It’s very bad here. I want to live in Sudan.
But you realize it will take a lot. Itâ€™s a huge project, and it will take a very long time to do something like this.
How shall we know when change comes? How shall we know that? How will I know when changes have come to Sudan?
There’s no easy answer. I suppose that it’s when one person goes to Sudan and sees and returns and tells family here.
When these things come, then we shall see with our own eyes.
May I ask one more question? Have you ever told your life story to anyone before?
I have been telling many people about my life, and their lives are just like this one.
How many years have you been in this house now?
Fifteen years. All of my children were born here.
Do you think they will ever go back to Sudan?
If Sudan is in peace, then weâ€™ll go back to Sudan. I was trying to settle in America, but it was not so easy, so that’s why I am living here. Americans come and say they will help, but those who have lost their families, those who have lost their parents know they are not helping. What you are doing now, if it is good, then will you be able to help me?
I think, indirectly, yes. I think these stories will be read by people in America and people in Europe, who will become more aware. And not just five-minute stories, but the story of a whole person, so they will feel more of a connection with the people. Very often, people in America or Europe see Sudanese people as victims, but not as people, and there’s a difference, because when they’re victims you can push them away. But when theyâ€™re people, then they become closer; they become more real.
[After a long pause] I’m sorry, I don’t know what to say. I wish that it was working better for you, and this is what we are trying to do to help. I hope that I have not offended you at all.
I will go and rest.