Tuesday, September 5, 2006
Ex-Sudanese Slave Recounts Horror of His Abduction and Treatment in Northern Sudan
‘This happened because of the Book you brought to us’
By Mark Ellis
Senior Correspondent, ASSIST News Service
NEW YORK (ANS) — As a nine-year-old boy tending his family’s goats he witnessed his village burned by the Sudanese Army and many killed. Abducted and enslaved in northern Sudan less than a year later, he endured nightmarish treatment by his captors that made him feel like an animal.
“I had a lovely family,” says Simon Deng, founder of Sudan Freedom Walk and a speaker for the American Anti-Slavery Group. (iAbolish.com) His father, a farmer in the village of Tonga, sent his children to Christian school. “We witnessed houses burned down constantly by government troops from northern Sudan.” Growing up, he received an explicit warning from his parents. “We were told if you see the Arab troops coming you have to run for your life,” Deng recalls. Once while he tended his family’s goats he heard the unmistakable rumble of German-made troop transports. When they rolled to a stop, soldiers poured out and began to burn most of the huts, kill the men, and steal any livestock they could grab. Miraculously, Deng and his family escaped death. They decided to move to the relative safety of a larger city—Malakal, and rented a house near the Nile River. They befriended an Arab family that lived next door and the children often played together. One day, one of the men next door announced he was traveling to northern Sudan by steamboat, and asked nine-year-old Deng to help with his suitcases. After everything was loaded, the man asked if Deng would stay and watch his luggage while he ran a quick errand in the marketplace. Deng sat dutifully watching the man’s belongings as the minutes ticked by. Suddenly the boat started to leave the dock and the man had not returned. Terrified, Deng started to cry. A few minutes later—with the ship well underway—the man reappeared and tried to calm the boy down. “Don’t cry…it’s impossible to turn this boat around,” he said. “We have to go to the last destination in the north, where they have other boats going south. I will put you on a boat going south,” he promised. Sadly, the man deceived his young companion. “He tricked me,” Deng realized later. “He had things in his mind I didn’t know.” When the steamer arrived in Kusti, Deng discovered there were three other children on the boat abducted by the same man. “He took us to his village and when we arrived everybody was very excited that he had come from the south and brought slaves.” Deng struggled to comprehend what was happening. “We were confused kids, not knowing what was going on.” “He gave me to one of his relatives as a gift,” Deng recalls. “From then on I didn’t see the man again. That was the beginning of the nightmare.” After his abductor disappeared and the family tried to explain his new reality, the boy started crying. “To stop me from crying they beat me up.” Then they brought him a photo of a man with no legs. “They showed me this in case I thought of running away,” Deng says. “They said they would capture me, cut my legs, and I would end up looking exactly like the man in this picture.” Beatings, threats and terror became powerful weapons of intimidation. “If they called me and I didn’t say ‘yes’ loudly, I was beaten,” Deng says. “I had to say yes to everything; I forgot how to say no.” There was no running water in his new home, so one of his first duties was to fetch water from the Nile. “Since they had a slave, I did the work formerly assigned to a donkey.” When he lifted the water he often gave the sign of the cross, which helped him forget his pain. “I was the first to get up in the morning and the last to go to bed.” The family would not let Deng eat with them. Instead, he waited until they finished, and if there were any table scraps left over, that became his meal. If there were no leftovers, he didn’t eat. “I was treated worse than an animal,” Deng recalls. “I had to get the grass to feed the animals. I had to clean the place of the animals. I didn’t have a bed, so I slept in the place of the animals.” In the midst of this inhumane treatment, his slave masters held out a carrot. “They always asked me if I wanted to be treated like a human being,” Deng recalls. “They said if I converted to Islam I could become their son and be given an Arab name.” Afraid to say no, Deng told them he would let them know later. “I was buying time,” he says. The thought of converting to their faith terrified him. “How could I become a Muslim and become their son when I know for sure I have a lovely mother and dad and brothers and sisters?” he asked himself. After three years of captivity, Deng’s new family moved to the larger city of Kusti so their sons could attend high school. One day Deng was in the marketplace and spotted three men with tribal marks on their foreheads which indicated they were from Deng’s tribe in the south—the Shilluk tribe. Deng ran to the men and breathlessly began to explain his predicament. “I threw everything at them to convince them I am a Shilluk,” he says, although he didn’t have the identifying marks on his forehead. (His abduction took place before this rite of passage.) These men—from a different village than Deng’s—seemed to want to believe him, but were not entirely convinced. “We know someone from your village visiting Kusti,” they told him. “We can bring him back tomorrow to meet you.” “I was disappointed and started crying,” Deng recalls. With his hopes for freedom aroused, how could he wait another day? But the three Shilluk tribesmen convinced him they would keep their promise to return. During the next 24-hours Deng wrestled with God. “The light seemed to come out of nowhere…would it turn dark again?” How could God show him this glimmer of hope and then abandon him? The next day Deng went to the place they chose at the appointed time. When he saw the three Shilluks and the man they brought with them, his heart leaped. It was someone he knew from his village! He ran to the man, who looked at him incredulously, staring as if he was a ghost. The man grabbed Deng around the neck and began to hug him like the prodigal’s father, as tears of joy flowed copiously down their cheeks. “I thought you were dead,” he exclaimed. “Your father offered 10 cows as a reward for any person who could find you. After two years we assumed you weren’t alive.” The man, named Ajack, told Deng he would do anything to free him from slavery. They all agreed continued secrecy would be vital. If his captors discovered their meeting, Deng knew they would take him to a place he would never be found. The next day Deng met Ajack at the docks, where the elder man purchased two southbound tickets on a steamboat. “He took me back to southern Sudan where I was reunited with my family.” Today, Deng struggles to describe his homecoming, mimicking the Apostle Paul’s reticence to describe his glimpse of heaven. “Everyone was filled with joy, but at the same time they couldn’t believe someone they thought was dead showed up in front of them,” Deng recalls. “Everybody was happy but everybody was crying.” “When I first saw my brothers and sisters it was such a shock to me and them,” he says. As word spread of the reunion, the entire village was at the family’s door. “It was chaos…it was a glorious day!” Everyone in the village thanked God, and viewed the return as a miracle. “I was born again from the miserable life I was kept in, and returned to a family who loved me.” As life slowly returned to normal, Deng struggled to put the past behind and deal with continued fears of abduction. One of his first acts was to put the Shilluk marks on his forehead, as a reminder of his identity. “Every time I thought about the past it was like a nightmare,” he says. “I had to forget what I went through and go on like a regular human being.”
In his teens, Deng became a national swimming champion and worked as a messenger in the Sudanese parliament. Later, he emigrated to the U.S., where he currently works as a lifeguard on Coney Island. In March 2006 he started the Sudan Freedom Walk as a way to publicize continued injustices in Sudan. On the Freedom Walk, he traveled 300 miles from the U.N. headquarters in New York to the Capitol Building in Washington D.C., and had a special meeting with President Bush in the White House. “A jihad was declared against southern Sudan in 1983 against anyone who would not follow Islamic law,” Deng notes. “There were 2 million southern Sudanese slaughtered and 7 million refugees,” he says, which created an unprecedented humanitarian crisis. Deng faults the western press for not covering the crisis sooner. “Because the Arabs were killing infidels in the name of Islam nobody wanted to talk about it,” Deng notes. “Their mission was to loot cattle, kill men and women, burn villages and take the young ones into slavery. Even fellow Christians didn’t want to talk about it. People were afraid of being accused of being anti-Islam or anti-Arab.” “As Christians, we were being slaughtered because of what we believe in,” he says. “When I came to this country I asked what happened to our fellow Christians. This happened to us because of the book you brought us.” Despite a peace agreement signed between northern and southern Sudan in January 2005, war continues in the Darfur region of the country, where Arab militias allied with the north engage in ethnic cleansing. The fighting has displaced hundreds of thousands, with many seeking refuge in neighboring Chad. “It’s still going on today,” Deng notes. “They want everyone to become a Muslim,” he says. “The child born today in Darfur doesn’t know if he or she is a Muslim and most important never committed any crime. We can’t be silent as human beings when atrocities are being committed before our own eyes.” As a former victim, Deng has an acute awareness of their pain. “How can I live in freedom and go to sleep at night when villages are still being burned, women raped, and kids taken into slavery?”
|Mark Ellis is a Senior Correspondent for ASSIST News Service. He is also an associate pastor in Laguna Beach, CA. Contact Ellis at firstname.lastname@example.org
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