Mangok Bol, a survivor of the Southern Sudanese war, talks to an audience of Arlington residents at the South Sudanese Community Center about the recent history of his homeland and how he survived the war there. (Daniela Caride photo)
|David Chanoff, academic adviser to the Sudanese Education Fund and author of more than a dozen books, speaks at the South Sudanese Community Center in Arlington about the similarities between the Southern Sudanese War and the conflict in Darfur. (Daniela Caride photo)
ARLINGTON — “What’s happening in Darfur has been called a genocide, and actually is a genocide,” said David Chanoff, Ph.D., academic adviser to the Sudanese Education Fund (SEF).
But it’s “a relatively minor situation,” he added, “[compared] to the genocide that took place in South Sudan.”
With that, Chanoff began his lecture last Sunday on the history of Sudan, the first in a series of talks about the country promoted by the SEF, a Lincoln-based nonprofit organization committed to helping South Sudanese refugees resettled in the Greater Boston area.
The lectures are taking place in Arlington at the South Sudanese Community Center, a space developed to help Sudanese refugees in Greater Boston keep their culture alive, interact with the community at large, and attend workshops on computer and job skills. SEF opened the community center, a condo with six communal rooms and a large kitchen, last April.
Last Sunday’s lecture gave Arlington residents an overview on how the conflict in South Sudan began and the similarities it shares with the ongoing war in Darfur.
Sudan’s Second Civil War, which decimated the country’s southern region, “was an atrocity that lasted for two decades and that was relatively invisible to the West,” said Chanoff. The conflict has killed 2 million Southern Sudanese and displaced almost 5 million since 1983 — one of the longest-lasting and deadliest wars of the late 20th century.
If that conflict had received the same level of attention as the battle in Darfur, Chanoff said, the outcome there would likely have been a bit better.
“What stopped the conflict in [South Sudan] was that [the second civil war there] became an issue in the United States,” he explained.
The conflict officially ended in 2005 with the signing of a peace agreement, but fighting continues and hundreds of thousands of Sudanese remain displaced.
But even with the higher level of public awareness, several elements make the condition in Darfur more tenuous than that in Southern Sudan, according to Chanoff. The United States’ eroded moral stature in the global community has made it harder for external forces to stop the genocide, he said, and the fragmented rebel groups in Darfur are more difficult to root out than centralized forces.
In Southern Sudan, there was a cohesive rebel movement with a very powerful leader during the war.
“We’re going to see a continuation of the depredations [in Darfur]. There’s no question about that,” said Chanoff. “The only thing that might bring an end to it, really, is the kind of dawning recognition among the Arab tribes themselves that they too have been used and have been marginalized by the [local government].”
In South Sudan’s war, Chanoff noted, there were strong religious and racial elements. Arab Muslims from the north were fighting against black Christians from the south. In Darfur, both sides are Muslim. The victims of this genocide, he said, are black African tribes that have been Islamized over 200 years.
According to Mangok Bol, the second speaker last Sunday, religious tensions were the reason why the South Sudan conflict started in 1983. His people did not give up their Christian beliefs, and fought the uneven distribution of resources for the south. The problem started when colonizing nation Great Britain handed power over only to the Arab north representatives, which started trying to Islamize the country.
“Southern Sudanese were not against Islam. Southern Sudanese were fighting for equal rights in their own country,” said Mangok. “There are two major ethnicities in Sudan, and 70 percent of the country are black Africans.”
Mangok is one of the 3,800 orphaned Southern Sudanese youngsters called the Lost Boys of Sudan, war survivors brought to America in 2001.
“[Mangok and other Lost Boys] went through exactly the kind of situation that the Darfurians are going through right now,” explained Chanoff.
In 1987, Southern Sudanese children were separated from their families to escape a sudden massive attack of northern groups. Mangok started a three-month journey on foot through the wilderness of Sudan. He was about 9 years old when he trekked more than 1,000 miles to Ethiopia along with his older cousin and other 25,000 people — most of them small children.
The ones who fled faced unimaginable dangers. Thousands died from starvation, thirst and militia attacks. The ones who stayed were mostly killed or taken to the north as slaves.
“I’ve seen so many things — terrible things,” said Mangok. “We escaped bombardments, we saw people being killed. It became part of us.”
After three years living in Ethiopia, the survivors were attacked again in the refugee camp and the Lost Boys had to run once more, this time 1,000 miles back to Sudan. Many more succumbed to natural predators like lions, hyenas and crocodiles, or drowned while crossing rivers during the rainy season.
About half of the people who started the journey in 1987 perished before reaching the Sudanese border. The United Nations sent the survivors in trucks to Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya, where they lived with little food or education until the winter of 2000-2001.
That is when the United States brought 3,500 of the Lost Boys here. Several Christian churches and organizations such as SEF helped the Lost Boys establish themselves in America.
The next speaker in the lecture series, Lost Boy Bol Riiny, works at the center and will tell the story of the Lost Boys and Girls on Oct. 12. Francis Bok, author of “Escape from Slavery,” will talk about slavery in South Sudan on Oct. 19, and Sudanese artist and teacher Atem Alue will give a tour of paintings created by his students from the Kakuma refugee camp on Oct. 26.
The lectures will take place at the South Sudanese Community Center, 61 Massachusetts Avenue, Arlington. For more information, visit www.sudaneseeducationfund.org.
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