A barefoot walk for freedom
This article was first published in The Jewish Advocate
November 18, 2010
By Charles Jacobs and Sasha Giller
Most Jews think we have a special responsibility to educate the world about the horrors of genocide – and to prevent other occurrences. Thus, when in 2003 the world learned about the Sudanese government’s campaign to destroy the African people of Darfur in Western Sudan, Jews played a leading role in the movement to stop it. Indeed, Khartoum’s supporters call the Save Darfur Campaign “a Zionist plot.” Presently, another region of Sudan – the South – may tragically become a scene of even worse mass killings.
On Jan. 9, according to an American-brokered peace agreement, the African people of South Sudan will vote on whether to separate from the Arab-dominated North and create their own state. Considering the North’s history of slaughtering Southerners – and that 85 percent of Sudan’s oil is found in the South – it is highly uncertain whether the government in Khartoum will allow a peaceful separation. Indeed, Omar al- Bashir, an indicted war criminal who heads the regime, declared he will not accept anything but unity. Observers fear he’ll launch an attack.
As the date of the referendum approaches, the Sudanese Diaspora here is making an extraordinary effort to educate Americans about the possible catastrophe awaiting their people, and to persuade President Barack Obama to show leadership on Sudan. About a month ago an escaped Sudanese slave Simon Deng, who works with our Boston-based American Anti-Slavery Group, marched 250 miles from New York to Washington to bring attention to the danger of another spate of slaughter. Last week he began walking barefoot through Congress (in solidarity with those of his people who fled village raiders unshod) to make sure Sudan’s plight stays on the agenda of US politicians. Simon will spend these two weeks visiting the offices of all 535 Congress people to warn them about the possibility of genocide. A look at Sudan’s history makes it easy to understand Simon’s grim outlook.
Since Sudan gained independence in 1956 its indigenous African peoples – Christians, Muslims and tribalists – have all been subjected to social, economic and political oppression by various Arab regimes in Khartoum. Khartoum’s goal has always been to Arabize and Islamize Sudan’s Africans. The methods include cultural marginalization, ethnic cleansing, mass slaughter and enslavement. The Arab/ African conflict sharply intensified in 1989 when a military coup brought to power a radical Islamist regime rooted in the ideology of Muslim Brotherhood, the same ideology that inspires and guides Al-Qaeda. Khartoum declared a “holy war” (jihad) against Christian and tribalist Africans in the South.
According to reports to Congress, between 1983 and 2005 the assault from Khartoum took the lives of more than 2 million South Sudanese, displaced 4 million, and enslaved tens of thousands. Human rights groups reported that the Khartoum regime and its allied Arab militias forcibly starved and indiscriminately bombed civilians, burned villages, and raped and enslaved women and children. A very similar pattern was also observed in the Nuba Mountains and most recently in Darfur.
In 1991, our organization, the American Anti-Slavery Group – with Jewish, Muslim and Christian leadership – broke the story of the enslavement of Africans in Sudan in The New York Times and then stoked a grass roots abolitionist campaign. We joined the Swiss-based Christian Solidarity International on trips they led to redeem and interview slaves. The slavery issue garnered massive press coverage and sparked popular demands for US action. Eventually President George W. Bush was persuaded to intervene. In 2005, after years of grass roots campaigning, American diplomatic pressure stopped the North- South war.
Actually, it was an unlikely left/right coalition that stopped the war in Sudan. We recruited both Barney Frank and Pat Robertson – but never put them in the same room! The Left cared about human rights violations, especially against black Africans, while the Christian Right understood the attack on the South as part of an anti-Christian jihad. The overwhelmingly Democratic Black Congressional Caucus pressed American administrations to act. They worked well with Republican Senator Sam Brownback, a modern-day abolitionist.
The upcoming referendum can be a moment of freedom – or a reversion to massive bloodshed. To a large extent the outcome depends on us Americans – Christians, Muslims, and Jews – because it is only the US leadership that can prevent a war in Sudan.
We are working to re-invigorate the left/right Sudan coalition here. We urge you to educate your friends and family, your colleagues and your elected representatives about the plight of the marginalized Sudanese. It is clearly a humanitarian, and a Jewish, obligation.