Former slave treks to call attention to genocide

Former slave treks to call attention to genocide

In this blogger’s era, marching on Washington seems like a quaint idea, but ex-slave Simon Deng’s 300-mile Sudan Freedom Walk from U.N. headquarters to the U.S. Capitol, which began on March 15 and ends on April 5, is anything but.

In America, Deng says, marching can make a difference, and it is one of the reasons he came here to live. He has been calling attention to the genocide in Darfur and southern Sudan and discovered that simply talking doesn’t work. So he and supporters who walk with him have taken this message to the streets and hopes Joe Average sees them, hears them, and acts.

Simon Deng is walking from the United Nations to the U.S. Capitol to call for help against genocide in his native country. photo by jeanette friedman

On their first night out, his group of about 14 walkers stopped at the Jewish Community Center of Fort Lee, where 80 people greeted them warmly. Rabbi Andrew Warmflash had heard about the march during the planning stages and offered to host them. He became interested in Sudan four years earlier, when he learned about the American Anti-Slavery Group. It is one of Deng’s sponsors. "I was first aware of the slavery, then I learned about the killings," said the rabbi. "People are being killed there for who they are. This has real echoes of the Holocaust."

The Standard caught up with Deng last Thursday afternoon, on the second leg of his journey. Surrounded by supporters from as far away as Colorado, Deng was heading to Penn Station in Newark.

Deng, 45, tall and strapping, is a professional lifeguard who lives in New York and a Roman Catholic from the Southern Sudan Shiluk tribe. When he was 9, an Arab neighbor kidnapped him and three other Catholic boys and pirated them aboard a ship. When the ship docked in Kosti, Deng was presented to his abductor’s business associate as a gift. For three years, he slept on straw and ate table scraps. He was told the way to relieve his suffering was to convert to Islam. He refused.

Then one day he recognized fellow tribesmen in Kosti and told them his story. They rescued him and took him to his father, who had given him up for dead. Deng became a champion swimmer and public figure, but was, for a very long time, ashamed to speak of his experiences. Finally, the unending violence forced him to speak out.

"America is a country where freedom is guaranteed," he said. "So I am taking my anger to the State Department and the White House because they are playing cat and mouse. The regime promised to help them against the terrorists, so the U.S. is not pressing them to give relief to the people of Darfur or to promote basic human rights. But Sudan is also not helping them with the terrorists."

Since 1953, Arab Muslims killed more than ‘,000,000 African Christians and African Muslims in Sudan, a death toll worse than Rwanda’s. Since ‘003, when the National Islamic Front took control, the violence went unnoticed as 350,000 to 400,000 people were killed in just ‘9 months.

Deng is upset at the silence from the Catholic Church. Quiet diplomacy, he said, doesn’t work in the face of genocide. He said that the Sudanese government provides arms and ammunition to roving gangs of Janjaweed Arab militias who, for a few dollars, will set fire to a village, rape the women, grab the children as slaves, and kill the men.

As Deng said that "Chad is the only place to run and is a pipeline of life," Reuters was reporting that a major invasion by Chadian rebels appeared imminent on the Chad/Sudan border and in southern Darfur. The Guardian reported that the regime had just successfully delayed the deployment of U.N. peacekeepers in Darfur for six more months, and that aid workers feared continuation of "a bloody campaign without any hindrance from an effective outside force."

"The man is a great hero," said Warmflash. "This is an extraordinary thing to do, but how else do you draw people’s attention to genocide?"

The Sudan Freedom Walk ends on April 5 with a rally in Washington at the Capitol. A few weeks later, on April 30, a massive rally is planned at the Mall. Two buses will leave for the rally on April 30, from the UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey in River Edge at 7:30 a.m.; reservations are first-come, first-served.

Also, community leaders are calling for Congress to pass the Darfur Peace and Accountability Act, a bipartisan bill authorizing the administration to provide assistance to the African Union mission in Sudan; to advocate NATO reinforcement to deter air strikes against civilians, and to deny shipments to Sudan’s armed forces any entry to U.S. ports.

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