A handsome Southern Sudanese from the Shilluk people group, Simon Deng cuts a striking figure. He is tall and strong, with a row of tribal markings spanning his forehead. It was deeply moving to see Deng stride the long miles from New York to Washington, carrying an American flag to show his love for his adopted country, in his recent “Sudan Freedom Walk.” Even more moving, however, was to see this warrior weep for his homeland at the rally that ended his walk in front of the U.S. Capitol on October 7, 2010. There is much about which to weep.
A Darfurian friend, Dr. Abdelgabar Adam, joined Deng in his September 15-October 7, 2010 trek. Walking together, the two Sudanese, Christian and Muslim, symbolized the reconciliation that has taken place between two former enemy groups in Sudan. Deng and Abdelgabar worry that U.S. Sudan policy is not holding the Islamist regime in Khartoum accountable for its many violations of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), or its ongoing perpetration of genocide in Darfur. They are calling for U.S. Sudan policy to ensure a free and fair referendum on secession from Sudan for the people of South Sudan – the agreed-upon conclusion of the CPA that is set to take place on January 9, 2011. They also called for an immediate ceasefire in Darfur, where hostilities continue.
Though their journey was called “The Sudan Freedom Walk,” it was also a walk against jihad. To frame Sudan as a humanitarian crisis is to identify the effect, but not the cause, which is jihad waged by the Government of Sudan in Khartoum against all those who resist the forced imposition of Shari’a to transform the country into Africa’s largest Islamic state. Jihad has prevented freedom in Sudan. Jihad was responsible for the enslavement of tens of thousands of South Sudanese. Jihad caused the death of over 2.5 million in South Sudan, Nuba Mountains, Blue Nile, and other contested areas during the so-called civil war, as well as the death of over 400,000 Darfurians in the past decade.
In America we face the “stealth jihad” described by strategic thinkers on Islamism such as Robert Spencer, Andrew McCarthy, Frank Gaffney, and Walid Phares. In Sudan there has never been anything stealthy about jihad. When the South and then the Nuba Mountains and other marginalized areas dared to resist the forced imposition of Shari’a by the Islamists in power, all hell literally broke loose. Sudan’s National Islamic Front regime (now the National Congress Party) declared jihad against these areas of resistance. And the jihad has never been rescinded.
Regular army troops were joined by Arab militias on horseback to attack villages, killing, burning, raping, and enslaving. Antonovs, which dropped bombs on civilian sites such as churches, hospitals, market places, and schools, were followed by helicopter gunship strafing of men, women, children, and cattle. Government orchestrated-starvation through forced displacement and scorched-earth policies, setting ethnic groups against each other, abduction and forced Islamization of children for future use in the military, and extrajudicial killings were all part of the jihad playbook. Now Khartoum is using the same playbook in Darfur and elsewhere. At the same time, the regime has provided obstacles, delays, and denials throughout the five year tenure of the CPA by cynically using promises of peace in Darfur as a bargaining chip to send Western politicians bowing and scraping, and offering nothing but carrots to a regime which ought to be thrashed soundly with a big stick.
Long before the most recent North/South war, or the genocide we now acknowledge in Darfur, this Islamist Arabist minority saw itself as the elite of Sudan, and the black, Africans throughout Sudan as “slaves.” (It is remarkable that with all of the apologies issued by Western governments, church groups, and others for Western participation in the slave-trade, no one demands that the Arab world apologize for its racist enslavement of black Africans. It might be difficult, granted, since it is still going on.)
Deng has first-hand knowledge of this evil. For three years he was enslaved in northern Sudan. A Sudanese Arab neighbor of Deng’s family asked then nine year-old Deng to carry his luggage on board a steam-ship on the Nile for him and wait for him to return. As Deng waited, the ship left the dock. Suddenly his neighbor appeared and told the now-terrified, crying little boy that he would put him on a return ship at the end of the journey. But when the ship reached the northern city of Kosti, Deng discovered that he was not going home. He had been “given” to the Arab man’s relatives.
Of the three years that followed, Deng says:
When I was a slave, I was unable to say the word “no.” All I could say was “yes,” “yes,” “yes.” I was the first one to wake up in the morning – to fetch the first load of the day’s water from the river, and the last to go to sleep at night. I had no bed, like a normal human being, I was forced to sleep on the ground, among the animals. I was beaten time and time again, usually for no reason at all – even by the children of the family, younger than myself. I could not go to sleep until every last bit of heavy work had been performed. When you read, usually in history books or even the Bible, about the brutality of slavery: for me, as a child, it was reality. For me the pain and suffering was real.
One of the more fortunate, Deng escaped with the help of fellow Shilluk men that he met doing errands. At age 12 ½, he was reunited with his family. He went on to become a long-distance swimming champion for Sudan. And after becoming one of the first South Sudanese to receive political asylum in the United States in 1990, the former slave became a life-guard at Coney Island, where he still serves with the rank of Lieutenant.
Deng began his activism after reading a story in the New York Times about Sudanese slaves being purchased for $10, and in 2006 he was part of a small group of Sudan activists that met at the White House with President George W. Bush. Deng presented the President with a list of over 10,000 names of South Sudanese who were still enslaved in the north and elsewhere in the Arab world. Not long after, Deng and his friend the late South Sudanese basketball star Manute Bol, launched the first Sudan Freedom Walk from New York to Washington, which also culminated in a rally at the U.S. Capitol.
According to Deng, it “doesn’t even go far enough” to talk about “human rights abuses” in Sudan. “We should be talking about the complete lack of human rights, and indeed the destruction of human life and the attempted annihilation of human culture,” says Deng. And what is even worse, he says, is that “no one has been held accountable.” Indeed, according to U.S. Public Law 107-245, the Sudan Peace Act, signed by President Bush on October 21, 2002, if the President “determines…that the Government of Sudan is not in compliance with the terms of a permanent peace agreement” he shall consult with the Congress and implement certain measures (sticks, as it were) to improve Khartoum’s responses.
The violations by Khartoum have been flagrant and frequent, but neither the Bush nor the Obama administrations have shown any inclination to follow the law set out for such occasions.
Simon Deng hopes that the unusual measures of the Sudan Freedom Walk, and the rallies held in front of the United Nations at the onset of walk, along the way at schools and other venues in Pennsylvania, Maryland, and DC, and especially at the conclusion of the walk at the U.S. Capitol where a dozen or more activists and leaders spoke, will help to stir the necessary action to prevent the Islamist regime in Khartoum from carrying out its agenda of genocide and jihad. In November, a bipartisan bill, the “Sudan Peace and Stability Act” is to be introduced by Senators Kerry, Brownback, Feingold, and Wicker. Hopefully, before introduction, those who care about Sudan will urge many other senators to sign on.
Deng warned that “Sudan stands at a crossroads” between “a tragic past of genocide, slavery, and injustice” and “a hopeful future of reconciliation, forgiveness, and democracy.” To even hope for a future of reconciliation and forgiveness with one’s enemies is miracle enough. But a free and fair referendum for South Sudan is the first step to achieving that miracle.
Faith J. H. McDonnell directs The Institute on Religion and Democracy’s Religious Liberty Program and Church Alliance for a New Sudan, and is the author of Girl Soldier: A Story of Hope for Northern Uganda’s Children (Chosen Books, 2007).