Sudan’s chaos sparks long walk to D.C.

JAY BODAS Sudanese native Simon Deng speaks with local residents at the First Presbyterian Church in Iselin March 17. Deng was held as a slave for three-and-a-half years in Sudan before escaping and becoming a national long-distance swimming champion. He is now a U.S. citizen and is currently walking from New York City to Washington, D.C., to raise awareness of the crisis in Sudan.JAY BODAS Sudanese native Simon Deng speaks with local residents at the First Presbyterian Church in Iselin March 17. Deng was held as a slave for three-and-a-half years in Sudan before escaping and becoming a national long-distance swimming champion. He is now a U.S. citizen and is currently walking from New York City to Washington, D.C., to raise awareness of the crisis in Sudan. Deng wants to raise

awareness of what has

happened to his country


Staff Writer

For more than three years of his life, Simon Deng, 44, lived as a slave.”I come from a country in which human beings are bought and sold into slavery,” said Deng, who grew up in Sudan but is now a U.S. citizen. “I am standing before you today as a living proof of that slavery. I come from a country where human beings are still being slaughtered, where the whole world talks about genocide.”

Deng stopped at the First Presbyterian Church in Iselin March 17 to speak to around 25 members of the local community on his experience as a slave and on the current desperate situation in Sudan.

He had spent the last three days walking from New York City as part of a 300-mile journey from New York City to Washington, D.C., to raise awareness of the crisis there.

“In the case of the country of Sudan, slavery still exists today,” Deng said. “I am not ashamed to identify myself as a slave, but I am not proud to call myself a slave. I didn’t choose to be a slave; I was forced to be a slave by another person.”

Sudan is the largest country in Africa, immediately south of Egypt, with a population estimated at near 40 million. The Nile River and its tributaries flow through the heart of the country.

After gaining its independence from the United Kingdom in 1956, military regimes supporting Islamic-oriented governments have dominated national politics.

Two major civil wars have been fought since independence. The second broke out in 1983. The first war left an estimated 1.5 million dead. The second war claimed the lives of 2 million more, with another 4 million displaced, according to the United Nations.

The U.S. Committee for Refugees, a humanitarian agency, estimates that one in five of the southern Sudanese population had been killed as a result of the fighting. Today, there are now more than 250,000 Sudanese refugees living in the United States.

Deng spent his early childhood in the village of Tonga in southern Sudan.

The Sudanese Army raided his village intermittently. When he was 8 years old, his entire village was ravaged by the invading army.

He was told to run for his life when the Arab troops came.

“Then one day they came and everybody was running, and suddenly the soldiers opened fire on us,” Deng said. “While we were running and the soldiers were shooting us, two of my best friends were shot before my own eyes. We spent the night in the bush, and the government troops destroyed every single house in the village.”

Two village elders who physically could not run from the soldiers were captured and burned alive, Deng said.

Deng’s father then took the family to a town called Malakal to stay with relatives. After staying with them for a while, one day he and three others were asked to accompany a neighbor for a journey to the North.

“While traveling, he told me we had to go to the city of Kosti, where he would put me on the next boat going back to the South,” Deng said. “Being the only person I knew there, I had to trust him. But in Kosti he took me to a village, and there his family was so excited that he had come from the South and had brought four slaves. I was then given to one of his relatives as a gift.”

Deng, then 9 years old, was told that he would be caught and cut apart if he tried to escape.

“In the Sudanese currency, we have a picture of a woman with no arms and legs,” Deng said. “They told me if I thought about running away, they would capture me and cut me, so that I looked exactly like what I saw in the picture. I believed them.”

For the next three-and-a-half years, Deng had no choice but to serve as the family slave, doing whatever they asked.

“The village had no running water, and they would get their water from the Nile River, carried by the donkeys,” Deng said. “But since they had a slave in that house, I had to do that job. I was the first to get up in the morning and the last to go to bed. In the morning, when kids were picking up their books to go to school, I was picking up the bucket to go to the river to get water for the house.”

Deng survived on leftovers. He was beaten regularly.

“In my case, at that time, people got to eat first, and if there was anything left over, that was my food, and that was what I relied on for three-and-a-half years of my life,” he said. “And when I was beaten, I would not defend myself, because that would make the matter worst. All I could do was cry for mercy, but sometimes that mercy was not there.”

Deng, a Christian, was told that he could escape slavery and become one of the family’s sons only if he converted to Islam, an offer he repeatedly refused. Then, after spending three-and-a-half years in slavery, Deng encountered three men from his village, one of whom helped him to escape.

“One of them said if I came from the village I described, then he knew someone from there, and the following day they met me again in the same location,” Deng said. “It turned out to be someone from my village. When he saw me, he broke down in tears, because no one had assumed I was alive. He then promised he would do anything to get me out of slavery. Indeed he kept that promise, and he was the one who took me back from slavery.”

In the years since, Deng fought discrimination to become a Sudanese national champion long-distance swimmer. He later immigrated to the United States and is now a U.S. citizen.

A January 2005 peace treaty granted rebels from the South autonomy for six years, after which a referendum for independence will be held.

But a separate conflict in Darfur in the western region of the country broke out in 2003, resulting in at least tens of thousands of deaths and another 2 million displaced.

Slavery is not the worst of the situation, said Deng.

In Darfur, a policy of genocide is being conducted against the black African population by the ruling minority Islamic central government, based in the capital city of Khartoum.

“Yes, it is true genocide is taking place in the country of Sudan,” Deng said. “It is being said by the U.S. government, but the United Nations refuses to admit to that word. It is true human beings are being slaughtered. The country of Sudan has gotten away with those atrocities for so long because nobody bothered to question them.”

A U.N. panel concluded in a 177-page report last year that the violence in the Darfur region of Sudan did not technically meet the criteria for genocide.

However, the U.N. report admitted that “government forces and militias conducted indiscriminate attacks, including killing of civilians, torture, enforced disappearances, destruction of villages, rape and other forms of sexual violence, pillaging and forced displacement, throughout Darfur.”

It went on to say that the acts were committed on a widespread and systematic basis, and in some instances may have even showed “genocidal intent.”

Both President Bush and former Secretary of State Colin Powell have declared that the crisis constitutes genocide. But Deng says that is only the first step.

“How can you tell the world that genocide is being committed by the government of Sudan and at the same time go about business as usual?” asked Deng. “The worst thing that can happen to a human being is to sit down and witness a crime and do nothing. To do nothing is to condone what they are doing.”

The U.S. government helped to oversee the original 2005 peace accord between the North and South. Deng wants the same intervention for the crisis in Darfur.

“That agreement was brought about through the pressure of the United States,” Deng said. “The two parties, the rebels and the Islamic government, were forced to a peaceful solution, even though it is not one. I am asking the administration to do the same in Darfur because the U.N. is not going to do anything, and the African Union is not going to do anything.”

Deng has been joined in his walk by several others who have become equally concerned by the tragedy unfolding in a continent halfway around the world.

“People like you, me, and your families are just getting slaughtered every day, and no matter who you are it’s got to touch you somehow,” said New York resident Chelsy Usher. “It is really frightening what can happen in another part of the world. I wish we could do more. I’m glad to be here and it is changing my life too. If one person becomes educated by this and wants to make a difference, then it was worth it for me.”

Fellow walker Isaac Rowlett agreed.

“We have the ability to intervene in those situations and yet we choose not to,” Rowlett said. “I do think it is possible in our actions on a daily basis, we can dictate what this country does, and I am doing this to move our country in the right direction, to intervene in the atrocities done by the Khartoum government in Sudan.”

Deng hopes his walk to the nation’s capital, where he is expected to arrive on April 5, will help to raise awareness of the situation there and bring about a change in U.S. policy.

“We need your help to do what we can,” Deng said. “I am begging you to speak up, especially for those who cannot speak for themselves. That is why I am walking, and it is not an easy walk. Don’t look at me differently because I have an accent. Look at me as a fellow human being who is crying for help, walking from New York to Washington [D.C]. In a civil society, some are guilty, but everybody is responsible.”

To learn more about Simon Deng’s walk, go to