Tuesday, March 6, 2012

My Trip to South Sudan, Part 3: Endings

There are some happy endings here. One of the first people we met after arriving in NBG is a woman named Abook, a woman with tightly-braided hair wearing a bright green dress. She screamed “John!” and threw her arms around Dr. Eibner in greeting. Abook, Dr. Eibner explained, came out of slavery several years ago. When she was interviewed, she asked Dr. Eibner to help find her two children still being held in the North. Dr. Eibner took their names, and passed them along to the slave retrievers. By God’s grace, the retrievers managed to find them, and brought them home to their overjoyed mother. “So we know her well, and she is always happy to see us,” Dr. Eibner concluded.

Dr. Eibner and Abook.

For me, one of the most exciting parts of the trip is getting to meet and talk to the Arab slave retrievers, who I’ve decided to call Ahmed al-Darfuri and Adam Yousef in this piece. They are figures right out of 20th-century cinema: sweeping white robes, ornamental prayer caps, and proud, intimidating faces. They carry themselves like chieftains from the Peninsula. Their skin is just as dark as that of the Dinka ex-captives; but their facial features make them instantly recognizable as Arabs. They cover their faces before they allow themselves to be photographed - for obvious reasons, the government of Sudan does not like what they do. One of CSI’s other retrievers was once arrested and tortured by government forces. His house was burned down, and his family is now in hiding.

I am the only Westerner on this trip who speaks Arabic (using “speak” in the broadest sense). Arabic is a kind of lingua franca in the South. There are so many different tribal languages that the language of colonialism and oppression has become the common tongue. (The new official language of South Sudan is English, but not very many people speak it yet.) Sudanese Arabic, of course, is very different from Syrian Arabic, and it’s difficult to bridge the gap, especially if Arabic is also a second language for the person I’m speaking with.

The slave retrievers, however, speak Arabic as a mother tongue, and presumably are well-versed in Standard Arabic as well. They are able to accommodate my Syrian accent, and to my delight, they do so happily.

Adam is from northern Darfur. His slave rescue missions sometimes take him around six months to complete. He travels by foot across the expanse of Western Sudan, searching for captives and masters willing to part with them. He has four children back home.

Ahmed also has children. I ask him if he thinks there will ever be a Sudan Spring. He replies, “Feeh!” There is! Hassan al-Turabi, Sudan’s deposed Islamist strongman, is making a comeback in the name of democracy and human rights, and Ahmed thinks he will succeed.

Many of the slavery survivors we interviewed couldn’t stop talking about how well they were treated by the slave retrievers on the journey back to the South, before they quite realized that they were being set free. The slave retrievers give them good food, medicine and new clothes. To go from years – maybe a lifetime – of incessant abuse and fear, years without medicine, of digging clothes out of the trash and eating leftovers, into the care of someone who is actually concerned for your well-being, must be an unbelievable shock.

Last October, a former slave who was set free through CSI’s programs, named Ker Deng, testified before the House Africa Subcommittee about his experiences in slavery. Ker, now eighteen, lived for most of his life in slavery with his mother, who taught him to speak the Dinka language. Once, when one of the master’s goats wandered off, Ker’s master, a man named Zachariah, rubbed chili peppers into his eyes, hung him upside down from a tree, and built a fire under his head so that the smoke would waft into his burning eyes. Ker was eventually rescued by one of his master’s neighbors, a local imam, but not before he lost nearly all his eyesight.

Ker Deng testifying before Congress.

While in the U.S., Ker received treatment at the Wills Eye Institute in Philadelphia to partially restore vision in one of his eyes. He is now learning English and Braille at Perkins School for the Blind, the same school that Helen Keller attended. A woman named Ellen, a journalist, therapist and humanitarian who has accompanied CSI to South Sudan many times, is financing Ker’s treatment and education.

As far as anyone knows, his mother is still in slavery. On this visit, Ellen huddles over maps with Ahmed and Adam, trying to figure out, based on Ker’s descriptions, where the retrievers might be able to locate his mother. Ellen also asks both groups of freed slaves if any of them have met Ker’s mother or her master, Zachariah. So far, no one has.

The interviews with the freed captives take four days at the two sites. At the end of our second visit at each site, the local village slaughters a bull to celebrate the captives’ return, and we hand out what we call “Sacks of Hope” – white plastic sacks branded with the CSI logo, containing grain, a tarpaulin, a blanket, a mosquito net, a cooking pan, a water canister, a hand-held sickle, and fishing hooks. We also distribute female goats to each of the slavery survivors, a task that’s a little chaotic, but adds a lot of fun and joy to the work. Female goats eat grass, produce milk, cheese, and other goats, and are relatively easy to keep. We hope that they will be a starter source of income for the returnees, most of whom are overwhelmed at having the chance to own something that they were forced to take care of for somebody else for so many years.

Me, pretending to like animals for my job.

One person we interview on our second visit is a tiny boy who goes by the Arab name Mahmoud Ali. His tattered clothing hangs loosely from his thin frame, and he wears an Islamic prayer cap, decorated with stitched olive branches and flowers to represent paradise. He was born into slavery, and was never told where he came from. He was left to his own devices to figure out that his master wasn’t really his father, and his master’s children weren’t really his brothers.

Mahmoud has only nine fingers. He tells us the master cut one of them off in a rage after he failed to wash the dishes properly. His voice is steady as he tells Akuei his story, but silent, angry tears brim in his eyes and run down his cheeks.

Later, after the Sacks of Hope have been distributed, I run into Mahmoud. His demeanor is completely changed. He’s grinning from ear to ear, and when I pull out my camera, he poses and gives me the “surf’s up” gesture with his hand. Where he learned that, I have no idea.

The goats we distribute to the slavery survivors are Ellen's brainchild. Part of her fundraising plan is to take a photo of every goat and goat recipient holding a piece of paper with the name of a donor, and then deliver the photo to that donor.

Getting people whose language we don’t speak to line up and pose for a seemingly pointless “kowaja” (white person) exercise is a bit of a challenge, and I use my meager Arabic to help as much as I can. To each person who poses, I say, “Ayoonak 3ala il-kamera” – put your eyes on the camera. (I think?)

Towards the end of this process, a very elderly, slow-moving woman poses for the shot. I tell her, “Eyes on the camera.” Hearing the phrase “your eyes,” she starts talking about her eyes. I take a closer look. Her pupils are glassy. I wave my hand inches in front of her face. No response. This woman is completely blind.

On my boss’ instruction, I take her hand and guide her to a secluded shade tree so we can get her story later on. I take her picture using flash, inches away from her face. I get no reaction.

Her story, when we get it, is depressingly predictable. She was captured in 1998 in Nymalell, probably in the same raid as Malachi’s wife. She lost her vision when her master beat her eyes with a wooden stick, after she failed to get up quickly enough when ordered to fetch something. The same man who blinded her repeatedly raped her.

Now she has returned from the North in old age, with no vision and no family. Dr. Eibner introduces her to the local chiefs, who assure him that they will look after her. There’s really nothing else we can do.

Before we depart, we gather all the slavery survivors together one last time, and Ellen teaches the group some exercises for dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder. One of the techniques is slow, deliberate breathing. Another is waving one’s arms backward above one’s head, as if to throw slavery behind you, she explains. This exercise provokes gales of laughter from the crowd.

Then Pastor Mary, a local Dinka Anglican evangelist, steps forward to teach the group a Christian song of praise. The song is a hit. Several young boys and girls who learn the song quickly step forward to take turns leading the group, and after a few minutes, the entire group – most of whom are still wearing Islamic veils and prayer caps – are singing, clapping, laughing, ululating and dancing along.

There are few better sights in the world, I think.

In Mabok, Dr. Eibner goes to meet the gathered local Dinka chiefs, to thank them for hosting the returnees and ask them to make sure they use their connections with other chiefs to find homes for them. Then he asks if they would like to share a song about the war with us.

On the spot, the chiefs, an elderly group of men wearing a wide assortment of hats (baseball caps, fedoras, prayer caps) to distinguish themselves from other Dinka, respond with a multi-part, foot-stomping, fist-pumping, choreographed battle anthem. The sound, even coming from this relatively unintimidating collection of senior citizens, is enough to either chill the blood or make you want to pick up a rifle for Dinkaland. It’s full of rage, pride and determination. Arab nationalism, eat your heart out.

For the past two years, a group of fifteen women in the village where the CSI clinic is located have been training with Ellen to learn a technique called “Coherent Breathing” to deal with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder arising from their experiences in the war. Every woman in the group has, at a minimum, seen a person killed in front of them.

On this visit, Ellen attempts to evaluate the progress the women are making, to see if there has been any improvement in their symptoms. One of the questions she uses in the evaluation is, “In the last month, have you been having frequent thoughts about the war?” She means, of course, the North-South civil war of 1983-2005.

When the question is translated, several of the women raise their hand. Ellen asks our translator to ask them for details. One says, “Yes – when my cousin was killed in the fighting in Abyei a few weeks ago.”

Another woman just lost a son in Abyei; another, an uncle.

Abyei is a border region claimed by both North and South Sudan. Its status was to have been determined by a local referendum, but disputes over the logistics of the vote and fighting between local government and SPLA forces led the North to forcibly occupy Abyei in May 2011, ahead of the South’s independence. Fighting has continued at varying levels there ever since.

Our flights back to Juba will take us to a city called Agok, which is quite close to Abyei. The airstrip where we land is surrounded by tanks and Ethiopian soldiers in blue helmets – forces belonging to the United Nations International Mission in Sudan.

Even if war has gone from NBG, Sudan’s war is far from over. The governments of North and South are constantly rattling sabers over issues ranging from the status of Abyei to oil-sharing. In the South, a hopelessly corrupt, institution-less government struggles to keep the peace between rival tribes. The day we left South Sudan , 37 people were killed in nearby Unity State – at an intertribal peace conference organized by the UN. In North Sudan, the central government wages war against insurgencies in Darfur, the Nuba mountains, Blue Nile State, and the eastern regions bordering the Red Sea. Millions of people in Darfur are unable to leave the refugee camps where they have lived since the government’s attack in 2003. The central government has been bombing the Nuba Mountain region, home to a mix of African Muslims and Christians, for months now, killing thousands, causing half a million people to flee, and preventing the people from planting crops. The government has also banned journalists and aid workers from the area, leading the United Nations to warn that hundreds of thousands of people are at risk of starvation.

Sudan has been at war with itself for nearly sixty years. The depressing reality is, there’s really no reason the war can’t continue for another sixty.


There’s no reason it can’t, but no reason it should, either.

We must never lose sight of this relatively simple truth: war is something we make. It is not a natural phenomenon, or the product of the great sweep of history. Nothing – not class struggle, not identity politics, not global warming – dictates what people will do, on their own or en masse. We are free to kill or heal, to forgive or take revenge, to enslave or set free. Every war is a war of choice, and the choice belongs to all of us.

The LORD will march out like a champion, like a warrior he will stir up his zeal.

With a shout he will raise the battle cry and will triumph over his enemies:

“For a long time I have kept silent.

“I have been quiet and held myself back.

“But now, like a woman in childbirth, I cry out, I gasp and pant.

“I will lay waste the mountains and hills and dry up all their vegetation.

“I will turn rivers into islands and dry up the pools.

“I will lead the blind by ways they have not known, along unfamiliar paths I will guide them.

“I will turn the darkness into light before them and make the rough places smooth.

“These are the things I will do.

“I will not forsake them.”

- Isaiah 42:13-16

If you feel so led, you can contribute to CSI’s slave liberation efforts by donating at www.csi-usa.org.

No comments:

Post a Comment