Breaking the Chains: Former Slave Simon Deng Marches for Freedom
by HEATHER ROBINSON
March 21, 2006
“As a child, I was abducted and taken into slavery, at a time most people assumed slavery was a thing of the past,” says Simon Deng, 45, to a reporter over coffee in an upper East Side cafe on a recent sunny afternoon.
“I’m not proud to call myself a former slave, but I am not ashamed. If there is shame, it belongs to individuals who consider human beings as property.”
Born in a tiny town in the southern part of the African nation of Sudan, Deng was abducted at the age of 9 and enslaved for 3 years.
Today, Deng’s life’s work is to prevent abuses of human beings in his former land. He speaks frequently to groups in churches, synagogues and other venues, and is currently leading the Sudan Freedom Walk, a two-week journey from the United Nations to Capitol Hill.
One of those joining him on his historic walk is NBA legend Manute Bol, who also hails from Sudan. Through the walk, Deng hopes to draw attention to the plight of civilians in Sudan’s strife-torn Darfur region, which he says is in desperate need of humanitarian assistance.
Deng was enslaved by an Arab Muslim family in the 1970s, amid conflict between the Arab Muslim population and the black Christian population in Sudan. But race and religion are not markers of decency for him; his desire is to prevent any child from being victimized as he was.
“I was victimized in the name of Islam, and I am now speaking as a victim, as a Christian, and also on behalf of other victims, who happen to be Muslims,” he says.
According to UN reports, slavery is still being practiced in Africa in Mauritania as well as Sudan, Deng notes. Also, mass killings and other abuses are currently being perpetrated against the black Muslim population of Darfur. Since 2003, militias known as Janjaweed from local Arab tribes have razed villages, killing many tens of thousands of black African Sudanese and displacing nearly 2 million black Africans in Sudan.
The Sudan Freedom Walk, which was conceived by Deng, seeks to encourage the U.S. government to take the lead in peacekeeping efforts.
Despite the Sudanese government’s failure to stop violence and human rights abuses against its black population, the State Department recently voted to classify Sudan as a Tier 2 nation with regard to human trafficking, signifying an improvement. It’s an upgrade grossly undeserved given that slavery continues in Sudan, according to Deng. He is asking the State Department to reverse that position.
“When I read that you can buy a slave in Sudan for $5, [memories] came back to my body; I couldn’t sleep for three days,” he said. “I had to decide, either to live in denial or come out and tell the world [about] what happens in Sudan.”
Speaking about slavery is taboo among those who managed to escape, some of whom reside in the U.S., including in New York, Deng says.
“Many of them don’t want to talk about it. They especially don’t want their children to know this was done to them.” But he feels he must speak out. “There is a wound on my soul. As we speak, other children are in the same position I was.”
A dignified man, Deng, who now lives in Harlem, speaks softly when recalling details of his enslavement.
“At the age of 9, when most children are going to school, I would be picking up buckets to go to the River Nile as a slave. I would carry all the water for everyone in the family.
“[Usually] they had donkeys to do this job. So, to make me do it, they had to beat me.”
These beatings make you feel you are not a human being. I lived in constant terror.”
At the age of 12, he noticed a man from his village due to the man’s “shilluk” — a series of raised welts across the forehead. It’s a tribal marking that Deng has as well.
The man summoned a distant relative of Deng’s who happened to be nearby. With his kinsman’s help, the boy was able to escape.
When he grew into adulthood, Deng was unable to stand idly by in the face of injustice. As a messenger in the Sudanese Parliament, he says, he witnessed government abuses of the black population stemming from an underlying effort to “erase the culture.”
One practice, he says, was for government officials to go into refugee camps and arrest people, especially women and children, for imbibing drinks that were a part of different tribes’ ritual practices. He would use his influence, he says, to free anyone he could from the jails, where children typically died and women were raped.
“I would use my influence to help some, but I would see by the look in the eyes of the others [as if they were asking], ‘Why them and not me?’”
After a time, government officials became aware of what he was doing, Deng says, and threatened his life. Because he had been a competitive swimmer on Sudan’s national team, he had the resources to leave the country, and has not returned.
Since then, he has made raising awareness about human rights abuses in Sudan his life’s work.
A New Yorker for 16 years and a U.S. citizen for seven, Deng works as a lifeguard at Coney Island. But raising awareness about the need to prevent human rights abuses in Sudan is his mission.
“When I came from Sudan, New York was my first and last destination, because it is the home of the United Nations,” he says.
In particular, he urges the United Nations Security Council, and especially member nations China, Russia and France, to stop obstructing efforts to pressure the Sudanese government to end violence.
“I want to tell the UN, ‘Shame on you, crimes are being committed and you do nothing,’” he says. “‘You host ruthless nations like the government of Sudan.’”
He says that fellow New Yorkers from Long Island have been especially generous in providing support.
“Simon inspires me and all of the people who are going on the walk,” says Jay Williams, a co-organizer. “He could have come to the U.S. and lived an easy life, but he’s using all his time and energy as an advocate for his people.”
Deng looks forward to seeing several of his fellow Coney Island lifeguards on the walk, and he hopes other New Yorkers will show their support and walk for whatever time they have. He appeals directly to Sens. Hillary Clinton and Chuck Schumer to attend the April 5 rally in front of the Capitol.
People can join the walk at any point along its route, and details about it are available on the Web (www.sudanfreedomwalk.org). “I call on my fellow New Yorkers to show their support and tell the people of Sudan, ‘We hear your cry,’” he says. “We have to speak up for those who cannot speak up for themselves.”