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March 2006
Guarding Life
The Satya Interview with Simon Deng

 

Simon Deng. Courtesy of Sudan Freedom Walk
Usually here, when people talk about slavery—especially in the 21st century—they think that it is past. But I am someone who is living proof of the slavery that is alive among us.

If you happen to be out for a swim at Coney Island this summer, you may notice one of the lifeguards bearing a Shilluk tribal mark. You might assume that he, like many New Yorkers, is an immigrant filled with stories from a distant land. What you may not know is, he was a former slave in Sudan and that now he’s a lifeguard in more ways than one.

Imagine growing up with the constant threat of militia raids on your village where houses would be burned down, men killed, women raped and children abducted for chattel slavery. This was Simon Deng’s early childhood in southern Sudan. Simon was later kidnapped and given as a “gift” to an Arab family in northern Sudan, where he lived as a slave for three and a half years before he escaped. He went on to become a Sudanese swimming champion and now lives in New York where he lifeguards and is heavily involved in activism on behalf of those in Sudan. Last May Simon was invited to speak before the UN Human Rights Commission. In talking about his slavery Simon notes, “there is no shame in being a slave; it is not a choice. There is only shame in being a master.”

As a U.S. citizen, Simon, now 44, protests the slavery and genocide in Sudan and articulates the desperate need for Americans to take urgent action.

Outraged by the Sudanese government’s continual injustices and the U.S. government’s inaction, Simon organized the Sudan Freedom Walk, “to end injustice, genocide and modern slavery.” Commencing on March 15, Simon, along with other former slaves, Sudanese refugees and fellow American citizens, will be marching for 21 days from New York to Washington DC, shedding light on the injustices committed by the government in Khartoum. Furthermore, they will be advocating measures like the passing of the Darfur Peace and Accountability Act and divestment, which can play a role in putting an end to the atrocities.

Simon Deng shared with Sangamithra Iyer his story of escaping slavery and his journey from Sudan to New York and why he must walk to Washington.

I am wondering if you are willing to share your story with us and tell our readers a bit about modern slavery in Sudan?
I was abducted into slavery at the age of nine, in which I spent three and half years of my life as a slave. Usually here, when people talk about slavery—especially in the 21st century—they think that it is past. But I am someone who is living proof of the slavery that is alive among us. There are hundreds of thousands of other children who are still in bondage today, being held as a piece of property by another individual.

How did you get abducted into slavery?
I was born in southern Sudan. Constantly, the government troops would come and burn down the villages and all the people would run and hide in the bush. Their houses and property would be destroyed, and they would come back after the government left to rebuild again. These things were part of the routine life in that part of the world.

In my case, after a raid in which my village was destroyed and too many people were killed, my father decided to take my family to the refugee camp in Malakal. There, our neighbors were an Arab family. It was one of the members of that family who kidnapped me and took me to the north. It was not just me—there were four of us. From there, he distributed us and I was given to one family as a “gift.” I didn’t know what the arrangement was. Three days later I asked the family where the man who brought me there was, and that was the beginning of the torture. I was beaten and told that I should not ask about him because I was not going to see him again.

I was shown a picture of a human being with no arms and no legs. I was told if I run away, they will capture me, cut my legs and my arms and I will look exactly like the picture. As a child of nine years, I was so terrified. After being beaten so badly I believed the threat was real. So I became a slave.

What did you have to do as a slave?
In that area you don’t have running water. Usually they get the water from the Nile and it is the donkeys who carry the water from the river to the house. As the slave in the house, it became my job. In the mornings, kids my age would be hugging their books going to school. I would be heading to the river to do my daily job, to make sure there was enough water for everyone in the family. I would have to do any job I was told to do by every single person in the family. I did not know how to say no. Everything was yes. And even sometimes when I didn’t say yes loudly, I would be beaten and punished.

How did you escape?
Two and half years into my slavery, that family moved to the city of Kosti. One day in Kosti, I ran into three individuals and one of them had a Shilluk mark like what I have today. I introduced myself and one of them knew an individual who came from my village. That person turned out to be someone I knew and he facilitated a way for me to escape. I wouldn’t have done it myself otherwise. First of all, I didn’t have the means to travel. Secondly, I didn’t know the directions—where is north, south, east or west. And thirdly, I didn’t know anyone who would direct me because all I knew was the family that owned me.

He was the one who took me back and reunited me with my family in the south. The family who enslaved me is still there in Sudan.

A seven month-old Sudanese IDP (Internally Displaced People) boy is held by his mother in the general pediatric ward at the Nyala hospital in south Darfur. The Nyala hospital is overwhelmed with referrals from clinics in IDP camps around Darfur. More than 500 new patients are being dealt with each day. Image: © Nic Bothma/epa/Corbis

I understand there is also an “underground railroad” in Sudan to free some slaves.
Well in Sudan it is not the same way you had the underground railroad here. Individuals from the West buy slaves from the Arabs and take them back to the south. It was done through the help of two organizations from the West—Christian Solidarity International and the American Anti-Slavery Group.

It was the idea of a Sudanese Catholic bishop, who was thrown out by the government of Khartoum because he was the only leader within the country who spoke out and confronted the government about the issue of slavery. There were kids abducted into slavery from his own diocese. So while he was in exile, it became part of his mission to make people aware that the slavery we thought was abolished is not. How did he prove that? He took someone from here to Sudan to buy slaves to prove the point, because people in the West couldn’t believe it was true.

After you were freed, you went on to become a swimming champion and now you lifeguard at Coney Island. How and when did you learn to swim?
My mother’s house was just 50 yards from the Nile and this is where I learned to swim as a child. I became a swimmer after I moved to Khartoum, where I tried to go to the pools, but was rejected and thrown out. My clothes were thrown in the streets and I was chased out of the pool. I was not allowed to be in the pool, because these pools are not for slaves.

The memory of slavery that I was trying to put behind me and ignore was being brought up again because I went to the pools. From there I said to myself, I am not going to let this stop me and I went to the Nile every day and practiced swimming. I did that for almost a year.

One day there was an open swimming competition in the Nile where everyone was allowed to participate. I took first place. And one of the clubs registered me to be their swimmer for the first time, but if I went to the pool, someone from the club had to be there so that I would not be thrown out. From there I went on to become a Sudanese champion in the long distance swim. But it certainly was not easy. To the point that sometimes they wanted to drain the pools, because I swam in them. That is a different topic by itself.

What made you decide to come to America and what were your first impressions of this country?
I decided I could no longer be in Sudan. How can I be proud of a country that enslaved me? A country that I am not even considered a citizen in. A country that is still enslaving my people. A country trying to impose their will on people and victimizing people like me—the black people. I reached the conclusion that part of the country is not mine even though I was born there.

What I knew about the U.S. was that it was a country where somebody will not be subject to what we go through in my country. So this is where I wanted to go and tell people what the people in Sudan are going through.

When I came, I didn’t know if I would be accepted here. But today I am blessed and very proud to be part of this nation. That is why I have become a voice for those whose voice will not be heard. Thanks to this country that opened its door to me, people are hearing what I went through. People are hearing what is wrong in Sudan.

People will give thanks when they get a good thing, but I don’t know how to thank a nation that has opened its door and accepted me as a human being.

Given the history of slavery in the U.S., I was wondering what the response has been of Americans—especially African Americans—to your story?
When I came to this country, my hope was that African Americans would be the first people to come and rescue me. I was disappointed. Up to today, I am still very disappointed. Nobody seems to care. I do not know what the reason is. Is it because we’ve become immune to it? Is it because slavery is still fresh in us, and we don’t want to talk about it? Nobody has given me an answer.

We thought the first people to rescue us would be our own brothers and sisters here. Especially when we talk about the slavery that is going on in Africa in Sudan and Mauritania. African Americans should be the ones speaking out against this, but the ones speaking out happen to be the white people, which we appreciate.

In your advocacy, you also speak out about Darfur. Do you feel the same regime that is responsible for your enslavement is carrying out the genocide in Darfur?
When people talk about Darfur today, they single out one part of where the problem is. The war has been going on in the south for years and years, in which the Arab government in power in Khartoum slaughtered 3.5 million people in the south, displaced seven million refugees—the largest number of refugees since World War II. Half a million Nubians were slaughtered in ethnic cleansing before this war went to Darfur and it was done by the same people—the Arab militias that are part of the organized militia government.

These rapes that you hear about in Darfur have been going on in the south for years and years. Sometimes we in the south feel very sad that nobody was talking about these things when they were going on in the south. What is happening in Darfur is not even a fraction of what took place in southern Sudan.

I’m not saying people should not talk about what is going on in Darfur. Today I speak about it because I know what it is like to be a victim. I was there. I know what it means to be in a place where you are a refugee, to be in a place where your house is burned down. To be in a place where your family is slaughtered in front of your own eyes, where your relatives are raped in front of your own eyes. It is the same person who has been victimizing me in the south who is victimizing innocent people in Darfur. We are in the same boat.

Are they also abducting children into slavery in Darfur?
They are not doing that because Darfurians are Muslim like them. They are killing them instead because these people haven’t accepted the ideology of Arabization—because they are still maintaining their culture and their languages as African.

The rape of women is part of the policy of Arabization. Arab tribes rape to impregnate the African women, so the kids they produce tomorrow are going to be Arab kids. This is why there is so much rape. It is a sick policy.

You are the official spokesperson for the Sudan Freedom Walk “to end injustice, genocide, and modern day slavery.” Tell me about this 21-day journey you will be taking and what you hope to accomplish.
The reason I came up with the idea of the Sudan Freedom Walk was because for a very long time, we would do demonstrations in front of the UN, Congress, you name it, and then you go home and it’s over.

Our government told us not very long ago the country of Sudan is involved in genocide. The question that has to be asked is, What have they done about it? Nothing.
Here comes more disturbing news. Our government is working to normalize our relationship with Khartoum. They sent the CIA to bring the Khartoum generals to Washington, DC for three days. These generals are the ones involved in putting the militias to slaughter the people in Darfur and were brought to our country, by our government!

The State Department elevated Sudan’s ranking from tier III to tier II with respect to human trafficking, putting Sudan in the same category as the Netherlands and Sweden. Our government is rewarding the perpetrators in front of our own eyes.

I was very upset, angered toward my government. What will I do? Not cry one day in front of the UN. Not cry one day in front of the State Department. Let me go and cry for 21 days by walking from New York to Washington.

That is the idea of the Freedom Walk. I am calling my fellow Americans to join me. We have to say our voice loud and clear to our government.

How can people get involved in the walk?
I’m not asking people to walk 21 days. If you give me one hour of your time, I will be thankful. If you give me one day, your off-day, that goes beyond achievement. I’m asking every one of my fellow citizens to help me in their local area, even to just spread the word. If you are not close to the walk, tell someone you know who is. We are going to have rallies/events in all the places we go. The roadmap of the walk is on the website. I need all the help I can get.

What do you think needs to be done to stop the genocide in Sudan?
The African Union does not have the mandate to protect civilians in Darfur. They are not even well equipped to protect themselves. I am not asking the U.S. to send American soldiers to Darfur. But we can facilitate and provide a means to the people on the ground. For example, we have a bill called the Darfur Peace and Accountability Act that has been passed by the Senate and is sitting in the House. In that bill there is $50 million to go to the AU for their logistics.

We want the U.S. government to finish the work they started in Sudan. They supervised the “comprehensive” peace agreement between the southern rebels and the government in Khartoum. How can you have a comprehensive peace if the same government is waging a war elsewhere? Let us address these things. The war had been going on for 22 years, but in two years the U.S. brought these parties together and the peace was signed. They can do it in Darfur if they want it. Let us get involved and push our government.

Furthermore we need to talk about accountability. Here, if someone kills a person, that person goes to jail. Sudan killed not one thousand, not a hundred thousand, but millions of people. And nobody is being held accountable. Why are we holding Milosevic accountable? Why is Saddam Hussein in jail today? Why are the Rwandan perpetrators being brought to justice? What makes Sudan different? And if you put all of these tragedies together it will not even come close to the tragedies being committed by the ruling party in Khartoum.

What is the first object of the Human Rights Declaration of the UN? To protect and promote human rights. Let us honor this.

What about divestment?
Divestment is another way to go. We brought peace, justice, equality and freedom to South Africa not through invasion, but through divestment. Why not do this in Sudan? We should not do business with this country—our money should not be bloody money.

A lot of colleges and states have passed divestment policies and legislation. We have a powerful student group called STAND (Students Take Action Now in Darfur) and they have been very effective. Tomorrow those students will be proud about what they stood for today.

Anything else you’d like to share?
The problem in Sudan is not a Sudanese problem it is a human problem.

I am asking my fellow citizens and people of conscience to not be silent when we have the means to say something and stop something. In Sudan today we have a child who doesn’t know west, east, north. That child is a victim. That child is voiceless. I am asking my fellow citizens to act and be the voice of those who have no voice.

To join Simon in the Freedom Walk visit www.sudanfreedomwalk.org. To learn more about the American Anti-Slavery Group go to www.iabolish.com. To find out more about divestment in your school or state see www.standnow.org/act/divest.html.


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