Marching For Freedom: Ex-slave Simon Deng Plans New Walk to Spotlight Sudan’s Plight

From The New York Daily News

by HEATHER ROBINSON

August 31, 2006

dang.png

It was “desperation” to raise awareness about the plight of black Africans in his native land of Sudan, Simon Deng says, that prompted the Harlem resident to walk the 300 miles from the United Nations to Capitol Hill this spring. Deng’s historic Sudan Freedom Walk – previewed in Big Town in March – resulted in his gaining a meeting with President Bush in April.

“As an immigrant and as a New Yorker, to be received by the President of the United States and welcomed in the White House is an honor,” said Deng, 46, who works as a lifeguard supervisor at Coney Island.

The Sudan Freedom Walk, lasting 22 days and culminating in a rally at the Capitol April 5 – the day the House passed the Darfur Peace and Accountability Act – drew thousands, including NBA legend and Sudan native Manute Bol.

Deng led the walk to raise awareness about mass killings and other abuses against the black Muslim population of Darfur, Sudan. Since 2003, militias known as Janjaweed from local Arab tribes have attacked villages, killing hundreds of thousands and displacing nearly 2 million black Sudanese. Human rights organizations believe these militias are sponsored by the Islamist national government.

Deng himself is a Christian who was enslaved as a boy by an Arab Muslim family during the 22-year civil war between Sudan’s Muslim north and Christian south. But his concerns transcend religion. In Darfur, the victims are Muslims.

After the walk and rally, Deng was invited to the White House for a meeting with presidential aides. He tried to impress upon them the importance of taking concrete steps to address violence in Darfur, which the President has called genocide.

Two weeks later, while waiting for a flight at LaGuardia, he was “shocked” to receive a call from the President’s aides, he says.

“What they said was, ‘Do you want to sit down with the President?'”

Deng urged Bush to meet with Salva Kiir Mayardit, president of Southern Sudan – and was elated when the President followed his suggestion in July.

It was the first time Bush came face-to-face with the Southern Sudan president – a position created in 2005 as part of a comprehensive peace agreement brokered by the Bush administration.

“I was so happy to see the president of Southern Sudan being received by the U.S. government as a head of state,” Deng said. “The North-South agreement was brought by the U.S. government. If there is a legacy of George W. Bush, peace in Southern Sudan is part of it.”

It was also inspiring to Deng’s countrymen. “The people of Southern Sudan saw themselves being recognized as human beings by the world for the first time,” he said.

President Bush was not the only politician to take note. Sen. Hillary Clinton responded to Deng’s personal appeal, issued in his Big Town interview, to attend the April 5 rally.

“I was honored to meet Simon and welcome him to Washington following his incredible journey,” Clinton said in a press release. “He is a personal reminder that millions of other men, women and children continue to suffer at the hands of the government of Sudan, its proxies and other armed groups.

“Simon’s calls for greater awareness and a stronger international response to the crisis should be … answered with action.”

The rally was very much a bipartisan affair. Also in attendance were Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif).

Despite the success of the Freedom Walk, Deng emphasizes that much work needs to be done.

While peace between north and south is holding for now, violence continues in Sudan’s western region of Darfur, despite a peace agreement between the government and the main rebel group there.

Deng believes that if this conflict continues unchecked, it will eventually destabilize the rest of the country. He is urging the U.S. and Britain to work to bring rebel groups to the negotiating table. Recently he went on a fact-finding mission to Southern Sudan, a region destitute after two decades of genocide and war. Virtually no reconstruction has taken place, he says. Further complicating matters, hundreds of thousands of Darfurians are fleeing to the South.

On a recent afternoon in a coffee shop near Columbia University, he was somber as he described the devastation he witnessed on his trip.

“I saw things I thought I would not see again after what I went through in that country as a child,” he said. “I saw humans relying on leaves from trees as their food. People are lining up for eight hours to get a drop of water. This misery should not be allowed by us.

“We [in the United States] have everything in front of us – choices of what food to eat and what water to drink – and people, my people, have nothing, no choices, sometimes not even the choice of whether to live.

“I urge my fellow Americans, we have a moral obligation. We cannot walk away from challenges. When the UN fails, where will the needy and people with no voice turn? To a free people, a free nation, the people of the United States.”

To raise funds to provide humanitarian relief and help rebuild the country, Deng is now planning another march: the National Freedom Walk Tour.

Starting at the end of September, he will travel from New York to Los Angeles, conducting a series of smaller walks that will stop in cities including Cleveland, Indianapolis, Chicago, Kansas City, Denver, Omaha, Seattle and San Francisco, where he will speak at schools and houses of worship. Details will soon be available at www.sudanfreedomwalk.org.

Plans are also underway for a European Freedom Walk from Brussels to The Hague later in the fall.

Deng continues to be inspired by those, including many New Yorkers, who joined him on his Freedom Walk – young and old, of a wide range of races, religions and political affiliations.

Most of all, he says, he remembers a 6-year-old boy named Isaiah from New Jersey, who marched with him for seven hours. Asked why he was walking so tirelessly, the boy replied, “Because I don’t want anyone to be killed.”

Deng sighs and shakes his head, visibly moved. “If a 6-year-old child can come and play his role, let us ask ourselves, ‘When innocent people are being killed, what can I do?'”

This entry was written by and posted on August 31, 2006 at 4:44 pm and filed under Features.