Former Refugee Discusses War and Violence in Sudan

Written by Fanny Dassie. Posted in Human Interest, News, Politics

Published on April 29, 2009 with No Comments

Valentino Achak Deng

By Fanny Dassie

April 29, 2009

Losing a friend due to a lack of food and water and coming across dead bodies lying along the roadside, is a reality that Valentino Achak Deng experienced as a refugee from war-torn Darfur in the late 1980’s, a first hand experience he discussed during a conference Monday at the World Affairs Council in San Francisco.

Deng was born in the small and “peaceful” village of Marial Bai in Southern Sudan. As the second civil war broke out in 1983 between the Sudanese Government and the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army, Deng witnessed youngsters of his age organizing into armed groups and singing to the glory of rebels.

In 1987, following the assault of his village by the tribal militia Murahaleen, Deng was separated from his family and was forced to flee the country.

“The community paid the ultimate prize due to those Murahaleen raids,” Deng said.

Southern Sudanese community members were urging children to take refuge in camps in Ethiopia and Kenya. Deng joined a group of families for an excruciating five-month journey made with food shortages, unsafe drinking water, and at the mercy of Sudanese government air attacks which mistook their caravan for rebels.

“I witnessed an incident where people were dead and lying on the roadsides. They were common things to see,” Deng recounted. “I even lost a friend of mine and left a friend of mine, who was asking for water or food, for dead. It would not have been possible for me to [provide him] with food or water, or anything that he needed.”

Deng and other refugees settled for three years in a refugee camp in Ethiopia where Deng began his education and integration – thanks to the assistance of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) – before being forced to flee a second time to a much larger refugee camp in the semi-arid region of Western Kenya after an attack by the Ethiopian soldiers left 2,000 camp refugees dead.

“What kept me alive was the fact that I did not want to give up until the last minute,” Deng said. “I was determined to persevere, to keep on going – and I knew that if I stopped, I knew that if I gave in to hunger, if I gave in to thirst, if I lost hope, then that would be the end of me.”

Deng’s advocacy role began in the Kenyan refugee camp where, trained by the International Rescue Committee, he became a community health motivator and leader for thousands of refugees.

In 2001, following an agreement between the United States State Department and the UNHCR that would give some long-time refugees the opportunity to peacefully resettle in the United States, Deng was transferred to Atlanta.

“I went to Atlanta on September 26, 2001 and began my new life there,” Deng said.

Working as a full-time cashier, gift wrapper, and decorative art store supervisor, Deng made it a point to use public speaking events as a platform to reach out to the public and share his Sudanese ordeal with students.

Deng explained that he has always felt like he was meant to be some kind of ambassador for the people of Sudan.

“I knew that maybe one day I would be the one that would speak for the voiceless, and it is becoming true,” he said.

While public speaking events allowed him to connect with people, Deng was looking for a more meaningful way to share his story. That’s when he set his mind on writing a book with the help of professional writer Dave Eggers. After four extensive years working together and a trip to Sudan that allowed Deng to reunite with his family, Eggers published a novelized version of Deng’s life in the 2006 book What Is the What.

Eggers’ decision to give all the book proceeds to Deng was the first brick that would ultimately give birth to the Valentino Achak Deng Foundation and numerous community projects in Sudan. Deng put the money to good use and planned the construction of a secondary school in his hometown of Marial Bai, a boarding school that is expected to open tomorrow.

Deng also offered his perspectives on the future of one of the most unstable countries in the world, stating that he remains confident the 2010 elections will help to bring peace and justice to Sudan. However, he worries that the arrest warrant issued by the International Criminal Court against President Omar Al Bachir in March, is the tree that hides the forest.

“We need peace in Darfur,” Deng said. “What worries me so much is that the victims are the internally displaced Darfurians. They still remain the victims even after the indictment was made and the [non-governmental] organizations were expelled.”

Deng urged world citizens to open their minds to the chaos and agony that the Sudanese people are suffering.

“Sudan is a member of the global community […] It is not a far away country,” he said. “What is happening in Sudan should be seen as something that is happening in our neighbourhood – and we can stop it.”

Fanny Dassie

Bio Fanny Dassie is a native of France who moved to the United States to pursue her studies in the field of media and communication. A 2008 graduate from San Francisco State University and a lover of the media environment, she has contributed to publications like the Oakland Tribune, the San Mateo County Times and Among her other passions are speaking English and Spanish, swimming and traveling.

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