Simon Deng: Christians Prepare for Independence in Sudan, the Frontline of the War on Terror

From Big Peace



On January 9, 2011, Sudan’s Southern population of nearly 16 million – mostly Christians and animists, or practitioners of native religions – will vote on whether to become an independent nation.

Since the 1950’s, war has raged between the Islamist government of Sudan based in the capital, Khartoum, and the Christian and animist South. Between 1955 and 1972, one and a half million Sudanese Christians and animists were killed by Sudan’s Islamist government. From the early 1980’s until 2005, 2 million South Sudanese were killed through violence and the withholding of food aid, according to escaped slave and human rights activist Simon Deng. Thousands were enslaved.

This political, racial and religious drama played out tragically for the children of South Sudan, including Deng. At age 9 he was kidnapped by a slave-dealer and enslaved by an Arab Muslim family – a common practice during the decades-long war between the country’s Muslim North and Christian South.

In the interview segment below, Deng, now a human rights activist whose historic 300-mile “Freedom Walk” in the spring of 2006 gained him an audience with former President George W. Bush, discusses his escape from slavery; and efforts he and other South Sudanese Christians made during the 1990’s to raise awareness about the threat of terrorism emanating from Sudan. In a segment to appear tomorrow, Deng will discuss the plight of Christian and animist South Sudanese today; the condition of South Sudanese Christians in Israel; and his high hopes for South Sudanese independence.
HR: You’ve told me about the years you were enslaved as a child. Can I take you back there, and can we discuss how you escaped?

SD: The family that had enslaved me had to go to a big city, Kosti. We moved there. In that city one day I was sent to get something. I saw there a gentleman that had the Shilluk tribal mark. I could not believe my eyes. It was like the sun came out from nowhere. I go to these guys and tell them I’m a Shilluk kid. I speak in the Shilluk language and tell them where I’m from in the South … They say they are going to come back the next day [and try to help me]. I feel bad and disappointed [that they would not help me to escape then and there]. One gentleman put his hand on my shoulder and said, “For sure we will come back and meet tomorrow”…During my times as a slave I can’t go 50 yards without being called [so I was unsure how I would get away the next day]. But hope always brings different miracles.

HR: So you found a way to get back to that spot the next day?

SD: Yes. I don’t know how but … they came back with another individual who knew me. He broke down in tears [because] here was a child everyone assumed was gone…During the time when people were looking [to find out] what happened to me, my Dad offered 10 cows to anyone who could give him information about his son. Two and a half years, no one claimed the ten cows. In Africa, 10 cows is worth a great deal. So [my family reasoned] they have to mourn their son …This man he did the logistics of transportation. He took me out [back to Southern Sudan].

HR: So you were back with your family in the South?

SD: Yes. After that I am in the South. I have to put tribal marks on my forehead which identify [a person] as a Shilluk. It is the identity of the tribe. The family that enslaved me, their wish was to convert me to Islam and give me an Arab name. I was told, for me to get freedom I would have to convert to Islam – and become their ‘son.’ I came close to converting and taking an Arab name. But how can I become their son when I have a father, mother, brothers, and sisters? I was born into a lovely family and now somebody kidnap[ed] me and rob[ed] me of all a child needs to have. Then they have the audacity to say they’ll take me as a ‘son.’ I said ‘no.’

HR: I believe you told me your decision to have your forehead scarred with the traditional Shilluk mark was related to your refusal to convert to Islam?

SD: In my head, [I’m thinking] if anyone will kidnap me tomorrow he will not have the desire to take me as a ‘son’ because he will see the tribal marks.

HR: And so, you were reunited with your family in Southern Sudan. Now I know you eventually moved to the North, which was heavily Muslim, and became a champion swimmer. Can you tell me about that?

SD: In 1972, the Addis Ababa agreement was signed [the agreement that ended seventeen years of civil war, granting partial autonomy to the South. At that time, Sudan was technically at peace]. Eventually I had to break the cycle of fear. I had to do something. In 1975 , when I was 15, I decided to migrate to [the mostly Muslim city of] Khartoum. In Khartoum, I got a job in the Parliament as a messenger. A friend invited me to go to a swimming pool. Things didn’t work. I was thrown out of the swimming pool. My clothes thrown out in the street … the whole thing I tried to put behind me, came back to haunt me.

HR: Why do you think they threw you out? Was it because you are black, or Christian? Or because you are a Southerner?

SD: I did not know the exact reasons because I did not know these individuals. But the way the pool was, there had never been black people [there]. Whether it was [also] because I was Christian, I don’t know. The word they call me when they threw me out was ‘abid.’ It means slave.

HR: Yet you became a champion swimmer on Sudan’s national team. How?

SD: My friend from the Nuba Mountains – he happened to be a Muslim – advised me, we will go to the Nile. He convinced me because he was a real friend to me. There was an open swim competition in the Nile. A training competition took place. I gave it my best to prove a point; I am capable to do anything any human being can do. After that, one of the clubs approached me to sign up with their club. Whenever there was a practice at this club, my teammates call me names over and over to the point a person had to be there [to supervise]. When I was upgraded to the national team, I took third place, then second, then first in the nation. After a year and a half, I qualified for [the 1984 Summer Olympic Games in] Los Angeles.

HR: Did you compete in the Olympics?

SD: No. After all was said and done, the government decided the swimmers are not going because of financial problems.

HR: Were you very disappointed?

SD: I was not too disappointed. For me to qualify, you have to compete in three events and win all three … it was an honor.

HR: Were you still a messenger in the Sudanese Parliament?

SD: Yes. There was a law being passed in Khartoum signed by the President, “Clean the City.” Not from dirt, but from black people who come from the war zones. Two million South Sudanese surrounded Khartoum.

HR: You told me that at this time, you had some trouble with the government.

SD: At this time, the government made it a crime to take part in Sudanese holiday celebrations where people were drinking. African women were taken to prison, and even if you are pregnant, or if you have a child, you go to jail [regardless]. In these prisons, women would be raped and most of the kids end up dead. What [drew] my attention at first was the workers taking infants to the burial ground. That was the reality of life in those prisons. People would come to me and ask me to ask [the government] to release their wife, their cousin, their nephew. Thousands of women and children. I would [pull strings to] release who I could, even though I cannot release everyone. I would be confronted with the horror in the eyes of the others [asking,] “What about us?”

HR: Terrible. What did you do?

SD: I went to the office of the [country’s] Vice President, with help of a Northerner, the speaker of Parliament. At that time, Jafaar Nimieri was President. When I told [the speaker] about what is happening, he said he can’t do anything because everything is in the hands of the President and the Vice President. It’s a dictatorship. I think the Vice President felt embarrassed when I confronted him with the reality. He said, ‘These are national security issues.’ I said, ‘Mr. Vice President, can you tell me what national security issues are affected by an infant? One that is born and dies the same day?’ He said, ‘I love you. But stay away from issues of national security. I must tell you, and listen carefully: if you continue doing what you are doing you will find yourself in a situation. We will not save your neck.’

I realize, I am “their son” because I am a sports champion. What does it mean if everything I am enjoying, my people are not?

I have a choice: to turn a blind eye or go away.

I chose to buy a one-way ticket out of that country.

HR: You came to the U.S., found work as a lifeguard supervisor on Coney Island, and made some efforts in the 1990’s to raise awareness about the threat of terrorism emanating from Sudan, correct?

SD: During the Clinton years, we knocked on every door. Before [Islamists] attempted to bring down the Twin Towers – that was ’93 – we started before that. We talked even to [members of] Congress and [members of] the Senate. I am not going to name names. We were talking about the Islamist movement [in Sudan] against us and against “the infidel.” We explained the danger. Sudan is embracing a man whose vision is to destroy the West, Osama bin Laden. [I said,] “This man is terrorizing my people, calling for ‘Jihad against the infidel.’ If I’m an infidel for the cross around my neck, what are you?

But no one was interested.

We were told, “Oh, because you went through a lot at the hands of these Muslims, at the hands of these Arabs, you were traumatized.” [U.S.] elected officials were so naïve. They said, “Oh, terrorists? They are against the Jewish and the State of Israel.” No one ever thought that in America they would be engaged in fighting terrorism.

HR: Osama bin Laden set up terrorist training camps in Sudan, correct?

SD: Yes. He went to Sudan in the 1990’s…and he was given the freedom to do anything he wanted, knowing that [the government in] Khartoum was looking for somebody like that. Because Sudan was one of the first places on the continent of Africa looking for an Islamic state.

HR: Did you have any awareness, as a young man in Sudan, of bin Laden and his terror training camps?

SD: We didn’t know what he was involved in [specifically,] but he was being hosted like a king. He was someone [well-known] in the Islamic culture, being guarded like a head of state. What we [Southern Sudanese Christians] always said, any time we got a chance to tell anyone, we [would] tell them what we have been going through in Sudan, and it is going to come to the West because we are being targeted as Christians. We were telling them about the recruitment of mujahadeen against ‘infidels,’ Jews, Christians and Americans. Like today. Go to any mosque, especially in some parts [of the world,] and you will not come out without hearing the words ‘infidel,’ ‘Americans’ and ‘Jews.’ Maybe now people have become more sensitive and careful because they wonder who will be there, but that [incitement] was open in Sudan at that time.

In Part II of his interview with Big Peace, to be published tomorrow, Mr. Deng discusses the plight of Christian and animist South Sudanese today; the unique connection between the South Sudanese Christians and Israel; and his high hopes for South Sudanese independence January 9th.

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