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PEP May 2006
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Public Employee Press

Freedom walker campaigns against slavery


ANTI-SLAVERY AND HUMAN RIGHTS ACTIVIST
Simon Deng and wife with Sudanese expatriates whose families were killed in the ongoing Darfur genocide, reached Washington on April 5, after his 300-mile Sudan Freedom Walk. Deng will return to D.C. for the “Save Darfur: Rally to Stop Genocide” on April 30.

By DIANE S. WILLIAMS

Simon Deng could not sleep for three nights. A United Nations report confirmed that children were still being sold for $10 in his homeland Sudan. It awakened his own long buried nightmare: Simon Deng was kidnapped and sold into slavery at age 9.

“The news opened a wound in me. No one believed the story, but I lived it and knew it was true,” said Deng, 45, an anti-slavery activist and Lifeguard Supervisor in DC 37 Local 508. “It was then that I decided to walk for peace and accountability.”

On April 5, Mr. Deng, who works five months a year as a Lifeguard at Coney Island, completed a historic 300-mile walk for freedom that began at the U.N. and ended five states and 13 cities later on the steps of Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. Like Martin Luther King Jr.’s civil rights marches, Deng conceived the Sudan Freedom Walk two years ago because, “Demonstrations work for a while, but connecting the cities by a freedom walk amplifies the message.”

Deng believes standing up for enslaved children and exposing the perpetrators of human trafficking and genocide of Black Sudanese will break the silence and change U.N. and U.S. policies. Rallies along the Mid-Atlantic States route drew incredible support from people who traveled from Massachusetts, Michigan and Colorado. Hundreds of students joined the march, as did basketball giant Manute Bol, who is also from Sudan, and politicians including New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine and U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton.


Simon Deng

Modern day slavery
Mixed in the crowds, their eyes brimming with tears, were Sudanese expatriates, former slaves and former perpetrators pained by memories and conscience. One million Sudanese live in America, and half are former slaves.

Word of modern day slavery, unimaginable torture and atrocities in Sudan, Africa’s largest nation, reached New York in 1995 when The City Sun, a local Brooklyn newspaper, published an article by freelance reporter Samuel Cotton. Slavery is still practiced in Sudan and Mauritania in Africa as well as in Asia.

A centuries-old civil war in the Darfur region split Sudan — North against South, Muslims against Christians, Arabs against Blacks. War erupts repeatedly, ending by treaty in 1972 only to resume over oil money in 1983.

Arab Janjaweed militia began raiding villages in the South in 2003 and taking as slaves men, women and children. “The government doesn’t call them slaves, they call them abductees, but neither term is good,” Deng said.

Deng was a slave to an Arab family for three and a half years, forced to carry water from the river like a beast of burden, he said. When he resisted he was beaten. Slaves are starved, beaten and tortured for the slightest infraction, Deng said. “Relief came only if you abandoned your faith, converted to Islam, took an Arab name and became their son.”

Unwilling to sacrifice his identity, Deng got his freedom after a chance meeting in an open air market where he approached three men bearing tribal Shilluk, raised oval markings across the forehead, from his village, Tonga. After confirming the boy’s story, the men returned three days later, took Simon, then 12, and reunited him with his family.

“The village women cried and collapsed,” he said, as if they were seeing an apparition. “My father offered 10 cows for my return but for two and a half years no one came to claim the reward.”

Later Deng received his Shilluk so no one would kidnap him again. As a young man Deng worked as a messenger for Parliament in Khartoum, Sudan’s capitol, but he was prohibited from swimming at an indoor pool without his Arab friend Mohammed Abelah. Angered, Deng swam instead in the Nile River. “No one owned the Nile so no one could deny me access,” he explained. Eventually Deng became a champion long distance swimmer and local hero who got the chance to come to America. He became a city Lifeguard 16 years ago and a U.S. citizen nine years later.

In Darfur, said Deng, Blacks are banned from the cities. Northern cities undergo periodic ethnic cleansing and Southern villages are raided. Black people are corralled, beaten, arrested and detained in jails. Most women are raped, and children end up dead, Deng said. The government denies the Black people of the South basic needs like food and clean water.

“No wants to call themselves a slave, no one wants to relive that pain,” Deng explained. “The United States gave me what I, and my ancestors, never experienced — security. I have received something from this country that I never had in my country, freedom. I have freedom of speech without fear of reprisals or death. I cannot say these things in my country and expect to live,” he said.

“I am blessed to have this freedom. I can use my voice to save lives in Sudan. Freedom is one of the noblest gifts God has given humans, and this country guarantees it by law.

“As human beings, the worst we can do is to do nothing,” Deng said. “Once we decide not to act, catastrophe beyond all belief will follow.”

 


 

 

 
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