This article was first published in The Huffington Post
November 22, 2010
By Heather Robinson
Today human rights activist and escaped slave Simon Deng finished an historic barefoot walk to each of the 535 offices of the U.S. Congress in an appeal to U.S. legislators to support John Kerry's Sudan Peace and Stability Act and to uphold the outcome of January's planned referendum in South Sudan.
The referendum will enable the people of South Sudan - mostly Christians and animists, or practitioners of native religions - to vote for secession from Sudan's Muslim North.
Historically, Sudan's indigenous African peoples have been marginalized by various Arab-ruling regimes. The marginalization has included mass slaughter, forced conversion to Islam and the withholding of food aid. Since the 1950's the aforementioned polices, perpetrated by the extremist Muslim government of Omar al-Bashir, have killed three and a half million Southern Sudanese, according to Deng. Since then, Bashir's government has perpetrated violence in Darfur against black Muslims that has killed an estimated 400,000 and displaced millions since 2003.
Additionally, Bashir's government, based in the northern Sudanese capital of Khartoum, sheltered Osama bin Laden from 1992 until 1996, while he plotted attacks on the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania that killed more than 200 and wounded 4,000.
January's vote is stipulated by a Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) drafted by the Bush Administration that also stipulates protocols for border demarcation and wealth sharing that will allow the South its independence. In exchange, this agreement allows the North a share of oil wealth that is concentrated in the South and also drops Sudan from America's list of terrorist states. In 2005, Bashir agreed to abide by the CPA and to respect the results of the vote. But, recent indicators suggest Bashir may not respect the vote and in fact may call for violence, according to Deng.
Last week Deng, a Christian who was abducted as a child and enslaved by an Arab Muslim family in Sudan's North before escaping, walked from office to office of Congress, appealing to legislators to support Senator Kerry's bill and urge President Obama to show leadership on Sudan. He walked barefoot - to emphasize the suffering of Sudan's Christians and native religious groups.
"President Obama must look in the camera and tell Bashir - this peace agreement was everyone's commitment," Deng told me. "It is our priority to make sure everyone has respect for the peace agreement."
Deng urges the U.S. President to show leadership in holding Bashir accountable to his commitments - including his pledge to respect the outcome of the January 9 vote.
"Without U.S. leadership then the ticking time bomb Secretary of State Hillary Clinton predicts will go off sooner than she predicts," says Deng. "It will be a catastrophe not just to Sudan, but to the entire region. Our message is: disable that bomb before it goes off."
Deng lauds the efforts of actor George Clooney to raise awareness.
"[Clooney] said, 'U.S. leadership is needed now, not tomorrow,'" says Deng.
Deng urges U.S. legislators to support Senator John Kerry's Sudan Peace and Stability Act. The Act, which has received much bipartisan support, calls for the U.S. to help implement the CPA. It's provisions include U.S. aid for security forces in the South - contingent on accountability and good governance.
It also calls for the naming of a "full-time senior official," in addition to an existing Sudan special envoy, to help oversee peace talks between the Khartoum government and rebel groups in Darfur.
Deng says his present effort is reminiscent of another walk he took through the halls of Congress during the 1990's. At that time, he and a handful of South Sudanese Christians tried to warn legislators about the threat of radical Islamist terrorism emanating from Sudan. The group named Osama bin Laden specifically as a potential threat to Americans, he says.
He was largely dismissed as "paranoid," he recalls.
"'Maybe you are paranoid, because of what you went through'" he says some U.S. legislators told him.
He adds, "They were so naive. [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."
Deng continues, "We explained the danger. [We said,] Sudan['s leadership] is embracing a man whose vision is to destroy the West, Osama bin Laden. This man is terrorizing my people, calling for 'jihad against the infidel.' If I am an infidel [in his eyes] for the cross around my neck, what are you [in his eyes?]
"But no one was interested."