Since February of 2003, an estimated 200,000 to 400,000 people have been slaughtered in Darfur, the western region of Sudan. Two-and-a-half million have been displaced by the atrocities funded and often carried out by the government of Sudan. Many are in neighboring Chad, a country that recently declared war on Sudan because the fighting billows into its territory. Relief efforts in the region have been limited, as the Sudanese government resists outside aid and considers it interference.
If you imagine the African continent as a melting ice cream cone, Sudan is the scoop barely clinging to the cone.
The fighting began with the drought. Though we might not be able to tell them apart, the people of Darfur divide themselves into two basic identity groups: “Arabs” and “Africans.” The Arab groups are mostly nomadic, while the Africans are usually farmers. They’ve always competed for water and land, but tribal councils have traditionally been able to resolve these disputes—until the 1980s, when the predominantly Arab government replaced the tribal councils with government programs. You can imagine who won the disputes from that point. Governmental prejudice created a feeling among the Fur, the Africans, of being marginalized. The fighting escalated in response. The Arabs began to organize their attacks and call themselves the Janjaweed.
The Janjaweed, a derogation of the Arabic word for warrior, raid the villages in Darfur with the aid of the Sudanese government. Reports describe mass slaughter, gang rape, brutality toward children, burning of buildings and crops, and looting. Many children are kidnapped by the Janjaweed and brought to the North for enslavement, mainly in Khartoum.
Even the government holds the crisis at arms’ length. The United States and the UN have done little to intervene; meanwhile, according to the World Health Organization, the crisis continues to claim about 200 lives per day.
But the tragedy isn’t as self-contained as it may seem. Sudan’s fallout has found its way into every corner of the world, including right here in East Tennessee. Over the past five years, Knoxville and its neighboring city of Maryville have become home to a handful of Sudanese refugees and refugee families, who are anxious to share their stories with whoever will listen.
The largest county in Africa, Sudan is roughly divided into three ethnically different regions. The seat of the Sudanese government, Khartoum, is in the north; as a result, the majority of wealth is there. The Northerners are primarily Arab Muslims. Traditionally they came to Sudan as traders and continue to exist as nomads. President Omar al-Bashir was appointed to power in 1993 and has remained there since.
Much of the political trouble began 30 years ago, when the government of Sudan was a mish-mash of coup attempts and coup successes. In 1972 a peace agreement was signed between the North and the South that liberated the South as self-governing. The discovery six years later in Bentiu, in South Sudan, of oil disintegrated the peace agreement. The government in Khartoum wanted the wealth the oil would generate.
At the most simplistic level, the South Sudanese want their own country. The North wants power, oil rights and resources. The war broke out in 1986 when the acting President Numayri imposed Sharia (Islamic Law) over all of Sudan. The Christians in the South refused to live under Sharia. The Sudanese People’s Liberation Army/Movement formed, led by John Garang. The SPLA is one of the largest rebel factions in Sudan.
The South is populated mainly with African Christians and Animists. They are herders and farmers, though after they fought the 20-year civil war most of their land was decimated. Many of their people scattered. The war ended with the Nairobi Peace Agreement in January of 2005. Since July 2005, former rebels from the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A) govern the South.
Lastly there’s the West, Darfur (“Dar” means abode, and the people there call themselves the “Fur”), where a new war rages for fertile grazing land and a foothold in the burgeoning power infrastructure. The Darfur people are Muslims but both African and Arab. Some were enlisted in the militia known as the “Janjaweed” to attack the villages of the South during the North/South civil war.
On a chilly, wet Saturday afternoon, a group of 7th and 8th graders at the Episcopal School of Knoxville are setting up a floodlight to film the story of two “Lost Boys” from Sudan. The boys are men now, and they’re not lost but very far from home, living in East Tennessee.
Angelo Mangok and Peter Kuot fled together almost 20 years ago from their burning village and dying community. With two of Peter’s sisters and two other boys from their village, they walked a thousand miles for help in Ethiopia.
It’s not an uncommon story.
In 1987, when the civil war broke out, an estimated 20,000 young boys, most no more than 6 or 7 years old, fled their homes in Southern Sudan to escape what would otherwise have been death, slavery, or induction into the northern army, in effect forcing them to join forces with the very soldiers that killed their parents. Once they fled, returning home was not an option: Their villages were often on fire, or swarming with tanks and men with guns, and their parents were usually dead. So where do they go? They walk. Half of them died along the way, crossing dangerous country with no food or water. The rest ended up in Chad, Uganda or Ethiopia, with no parents or means of supporting themselves. Just their lives and whatever small things they may have carried away. Some of the survivors grew up in refugee camps; others become soldiers with the SPLA. These are the “Lost Boys.”
Peter Kuot was 5 years old when his long journey began. “Peter is my Christian name,” he explains. “I was raised as a Christian, but when I wanted to leave Sudan, to get the right papers I had to use the name, Deng. If I used my Christian name, Peter, they would have killed me.”
During the long walk to a refugee camp in the company of the SPLA, Kuot recalls that the children “were taken into the forest and told to ‘Eat anything— leaves, roots, it doesn’t matter.’ If we didn’t eat it they would point a gun at us, and say, ‘Eat it or I will kill you.’ And I didn’t realize until when I was an adult, they did that to save our lives. They had no food to give us.”
With hundreds of other boys, some from their village, they braved bandits, soldiers and even lions to reach Ethiopia. Some 14 years later, they were among the 3,800 Lost Boys who were resettled in 28 American states between 2000 and 2001, most of them for the purpose of receiving college educations. Both Kuot and Mangok are now university students, attending Pellissippi and Maryville Colleges respectively, through sponsored work-study programs.
Handsome, with an honest, dark gaze, Mangok uses his hands to emphasize points in the conversation. “If it weren’t for the Lost Boys, no one would know what is going on in Sudan,” he explains. “We are telling our story everywhere.”
The Sudanese Liberation Movement/Army (SLA, not to be confused with the SPLA in the South) formed soon after, briefly known as the Darfur Liberation Movement. Its goal was to give voice to Africans in Khartoum and retain its share of resources, but its methods for accomplishing this only fueled the government’s fire. The SLA’s general statement, led by Minni Minawi, is to “create a united, democratic Sudan.”
The other rebel faction active in Darfur is the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM). The JEM is thought to be led by Sudanese opposition leader, Hassan al-Turabi. Turabi is former speaker of Sudan’s parliament. After bringing a referendum in 1999 to lessen the powers of the president, Bashir dissolved the parliament and put Turabi in prison. They have an Islamic ideology but remain distrustful of Khartoum.
There are many biographies of the Lost Boys surfacing; they are doing their duty to the world community by no longer remaining silent. Some stories of Lost Girls have surfaced as well, although there aren’t as many girls in the situation. Most of the girls are sold into slavery or sex trafficking.
One of these stories is told in an autobiography by Mende Nazer called Slave . Nazer was kidnapped from her village at age 12 and taken to a house in Khartoum. She slept in a shack in the backyard, worked all day, and was beaten. She was fed scraps from the families’ plates. After seven years, she was taken to England, where she managed to escape in September of 2000.
According to Mangok, slavery has been turned into a business in the Sudanese North. “They will kidnap the children from the villages and make them work. Take them from their family,” he says. “Then when you want to try to get them back, you must pay. And sometimes you can make the money and you pay, but even then, they come back and take them again.”
Kuot has a closer relationship with the issue. “My brother was a slave. He was captured. And I tried to find him for a long time. People were helping me find information to find him and to free him,” he says. His face loses the stony mask of having told this story hundreds of times. Humanitarian agencies such as Christian Solidarity International aid in researching and buying these loved ones back.
Kuot finally found his brother in the Sudanese capital of Khartoum, working as an enslaved shepherd for an Arab family. He eventually raised $8,000 to buy his brother back.
“My mother doesn’t believe we are alive,” he says. “She is 68, and she has lived through so much. I haven’t seen her in 20 years. My father was killed.” He blinks very slowly when he says this. “She didn’t believe it is us when we contact her, until finally we got my brother back. I raised the money. And he was freed and went to her.”
When asked about his plans for the future, after graduation from Maryville College, Mangok says he hasn’t ruled out the possibility of returning to Sudan. “I keep a foot on both sides. If the path leads me one way, that is the way I will go; if it is the other way that is right, then I will go the other way,” he says.
He mentions his friend, Jimmy Makuach, who was 6 years old when he fled his village with Mangok. Mankuach graduated from Maryville College this past May and acquired his American citizenship this past summer. He left for Sudan soon after with a position in a U.S. agency based in Kenya. Mangok and Kuot both confess to missing him.
“We only had each other.” Kuot says. “What people in the United States don’t understand is we have always made our own decisions. We work hard where we have to, and if there is someone older than us willing to give us advice or to help us, we will look to them as parents. We never had parents. Only people who would help us or show us a good direction, and we were thankful for it.”
“People ask me if I like doing this,” he says, referring to spending all his free time in interviews, telling his story. “I say it doesn’t matter what I like. I have to help my people.” Mangok pauses and leans back in the chair. “You gotta do what you gotta do,” he says, his round-vowelled accent slipping into a surprising smile.
If you believe the Sudanese government, the reason this is happening is inflated tribal warfare. Khartoum denies any involvement with the Janjaweed, though the thieves are seen in uniforms that are suspiciously similar to those of the Sudan Army.
News of the attacks being aided by government helicopter bombardment and tanks has been reported. The villages consist of mud huts, wells, cattle, and wooden fences. Bombs, tanks and rifles are overkill unless your intent is to massacre people.
An alleged-ex Janjaweed soldier, known as Dily, recently came forward in England. All possible background checks verify Dily’s story that he is a Sudanese refugee, a former member of the Janjaweed. In an interview with The World Times, Dily claims they were aided in many attacks by the government as well as having been trained by them. “The government said, ‘Attack all villages.’ The local commanders decided which,” he said. “We burnt their homes and killed all the men, women and children.”
“Mostly [the commanders] said, ‘Kill the blacks. Kill the blacks,’” Dily said. “The majority were civilians, most of them women.”
Some here in East Tennessee are not only listening; they’re taking action.
Anita Henderlight is coordinator of Children’s Ministries for the Holston Conference, a collective of Methodist churches in the East Tennessee area. She became an advocate for the situation in Sudan after picking up a book in a bright yellow jacket at Barnes and Noble titled They Poured Fire on Us from the Sky, about the Lost Boys of Sudan.
“It’s a story about little boys, told from a child’s perspective, about the day their village was attacked,” Henderlight explains. “To them, the bombs coming down looked like fire falling out of the air. Literally three hours later, I close the book and I think, wow. I’m an educated individual and I had no idea that there was even a civil war in Sudan, much less that little kids are losing their families, fighting for their lives, and having to walk thousands of miles just to survive.”
The book was fresh in her mind when Henderlight attended a conference in Nashville one week later. A man sat down next to her named Kasambo. In what could only be called providence, Kasambo was a Lost Boy of Sudan.
“I absolutely accosted him with questions,” Henderlight recalls. “He just wanted to sit there and here is this crazed lady asking him everything he could possibly tell her about how he got to Nashville and what his life was like and what he went through.”
The Lost Boys of Sudan weighed heavy on her heart. When Henderlight got back to Knoxville, at a weekly Holston Conference meeting, she requested a prayer for “safety for children of Sudan.” Her bishop, Bishop Swanson, asked her back to his office after the meeting. At first, she thought she was “in trouble,” but he wanted to show her an email he had opened that morning. The email was of Kevin Carter’s 1994 Pulitzer prize-winning photo, showing a bone-thin Sudanese girl crawling to a UN food line. There’s a husky vulture close by, waiting for the child’s eminent death. Carter committed suicide just weeks after taking the photo.
Bishop Swanson and Henderlight discussed how they could be “advocates of the peace process and responsible to their world community” in this situation. They decided educating themselves on the history and direction of the conflict was the first order of business. Thus, the Sudan Action Team was born.
The Sudan project, Henderlight says, “has been different…. I invited everyone to the table on this one. No one ministry could handle it.”
After doing some research, Henderlight was able to make contact with East Tennessee’s own Lost Boys: Kuot, Makuach and Mangok. She spoke with them about her first action toward helping the people of Sudan; she wanted to know what she should send to the children. Clothes, prepackaged snacks?
“I couldn’t believe what they told me. Soccer balls and Frisbees. Soccer balls and Frisbees,” she repeats, still disbelieving. “Jimmy [Mankuach] said, ‘These are kids who don’t know what it means to have a childhood. They need something that will lift them out of their depression, and soccer has the added benefit of fostering teamwork. They’ll learn to get along with each other under stressful circumstances; it will give them a vision of peace.’ It made perfect sense.” The Sudan Action Team, with the aid of the Cokesbury Center, an affiliate of the Holston Conference that sponsors three Knoxville-area Sudanese families, collected 10,000 soccer balls, Frisbees and hackey sacs.
This past March, in conjunction with the General Board of Global Ministries in New York, Henderlight and others from the Sudan Action Team went to Yei in South Sudan to see with their own eyes how the people of Sudan are surviving.
“The first day we met the village officials and got settled in,” she explains. “We talked to the people to ask them what they wanted. Then the second day we met with the women’s leaders and teachers to compile a top 10 list of their needs. We wanted them to take part in their own assistance, to let them control and oversee.”
What they found was that the Sudanese wanted simple things like wells. A community of a thousand people is serviced by one hole, bore down into the dirt to the water table. The children gather one dish of water per day, with which they do all their cooking, washing and cleaning.
Keeping in mind that the fighting in South Sudan has almost stopped, imagine living like this in Darfur. Only in addition to having one water hole and hundreds of thousands of refugees with no resources, there is the eminent threat of being murdered.
While individuals and organizations acting on a local level is a step in the right direction, it will ultimately take an entire country, if not an entire world, to stand up and efficiently address the crisis in Sudan.
Humorist P.J. O’Rourke said “Wherever there’s injustice, oppression and suffering, America will show up six months late and bomb the country next to where it’s happening.” Sudan and Iran are separated by just one country, so maybe we’re getting closer.
Colin Powell declared the nightmare in Darfur genocide in September of 2004. Condoleezza Rice agreed in September this year. Despite the strong language it uses to describe the crisis, the United States has done very little to intervene.
Nor has the UN. The 1948 United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights makes clear that if a case of genocide arises, the UN is obligated to act, which may explain why it has been so slow to agree with the United States’ label.
According to one UN definition, genocide means, “deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part.” The people of Darfur are dying. Every day more are killed or perish from the lack of humanitarian aid, which is being forcibly kept from the area.
After Rwanda, Bush said “not on my watch,” but already half the number of people killed in Rwanda’s decade-long dirty secret have been slaughtered in Darfur in only three years. More die daily from lack of water and food. When there is an outbreak of cholera or measles at a refugee camp, it quickly becomes epidemic with no possibility of suppression.
The United States recently sent an envoy, Andrew Natsios, to Darfur to take stock of the situation. He returned on Oct. 30, 2006, and President Bush was slated to give a statement on his discussion with Natsios. Some criticized Bush’s sternest statement—“We’re earnest and serious about [the government of Sudan’s] necessity to step up and work with the international community”—as floundering and mild. In the next breath, he thanked China for “encouraging” the six-party talks with North Korea.
Because China funded and continues to fund the oil export in Sudan, they have an intimate and ongoing relationship with the government in Khartoum.
Is Bush sending a subtle reminder to China to use its influence with Khartoum and get the UN relief peacekeepers inside the country? Or is it an even subtler message, insinuating that the United States appreciates North Korean compromises and won’t touch China’s oil interests in Sudan? Then again, it may be overly generous to think that Bush’s statements are somehow connected.
Condoleezza Rice spoke before the UN Security Council on Sept. 22 about moving peacekeepers into Darfur. She told them “the one remaining obstacle is the Government of Sudan, which thus far has opposed a UN presence in Darfur. I would be quick to note that this opposition has not been unanimous within Sudan’s Government, and we welcome the support of the Sudanese Peoples Liberation Movement and the Sudan Liberation Movement for the deployment of a UN force to Darfur.”
Is Darfur the new Rwanda? U.S. citizens have the luxury of a government that appears to at least try to listen to its people. But these are our people as well. The genocide in Darfur isn’t merely affecting distant, faceless people: Some of these survivors, these victims of a merciless and grotesque government, live with us. In our town, going to our schools.
It’s time to take a stand.